JFK (1991)

Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriters: Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar
Adapted from: On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs
Cast: Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Jay O. Sanders, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman
Nominations: Picture, Director – Oliver Stone, Supporting Actor – Tommy Lee Jones, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound
Wins: Cinematography, Editing

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Preamble of the United States Constitution

In this day and age, in which fake news, half-truths, lazy reporting, and hypocritically extreme ideology, it can be difficult to understand how controversial JFK was upon its release—and even during its production.  A film based on what’s officially considered a conspiracy theory was novel and not something one would expect from a major motion picture studio (Warner Bros.) and multi-Oscar winning writer-director.  The thing is, whether you accept the findings of the Warren Commission or buy into another explanation about John Kennedy’s assassination, there’s little point in denying that JFK is a well-made, engaging, and unpredictable film that is also sincere, earnest, and thought out in its arguments.

The screenplay has to be one of the best and most interesting ever written.  Derived from two books by two different authors, Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar created a cohesive story that presents events from multiple perspectives with conflicting details and flashbacks within flashbacks while always making sense.  The fact that the script breaks a few big screenwriting “rules”—don’t use voiceover too much and avoid page-long monologues—but is never boring is a credit to the strength of the narrative and the information being conveyed.  And while it might be easy to shrug off that information as speculation and conjecture and twisting facts and truth, an annotated screenplay was published in 2000 that sources all claims made in the film.

Working in tandem with the powerful screenplay are the Oscar-winning cinematography by Robert Richardson and Oscar-winning editing by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia.  The film drives forward via its story, but all the fuel comes from directly from the editing and cinematography.  The jumping from color to black-and-white stock and various framerates and the use of quick cuts gives the film a rush of a fever dream, as if some scenes are vague, half-remembered memories.  It’s a strong metaphor: scenes depicting the Warren Commission’s findings and Jim Garrison’s theories are both presented in black-and-white and color and with different editing choices, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

Whatever you believe about what happened on November 22, 1963, the most prominent message JFK has for us is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s and 1990s: truth is paramount above all else.  From the truth, we can find justice; from the truth, we can find power.  John 8:32 says, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  If we live in a world built upon lies and deception, we are prisoners to those lies and deceptions.  However, when that world has a foundation on truth, we are able to use that foundation for a greater purpose.  We can trust our personal philosophies, politics, and faiths.  We can trust in others, because we know that everyone is coming from a shared frame of reference that can be counted on.  Instead, we live in an imperfect world in which not everyone is sympathetic, let alone empathetic, to others.  It’s a world in which someone can create a fictional life with social media, showing how “selfless” they are because appearances mean more than actions.

While it’s (obviously) primarily about the murder of John Kennedy, Jim Garrison’s closing statement in the film is also a direct appeal to viewer.  If we have mistrust in our government, we have to speak up.  We have to have the courage to risk comfortability and remember that our government exists to serve us, its citizens, and not the other way around.