To judge by some of the scorn JFK received on release (‘Dallas In Wonderland’ screamed one headline), you’d think it was Oliver Stone who pulled the trigger in that book depository.
It certainly cemented his rep as a conspiracy theorist, with its suggestion that wide-ranging government forces were behind the president’s ’63 assassination. But what was perhaps underappreciated in the rush to put Stone to the sword was the technical virtuosity on display.
The Oscar-winning editing by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia is matched only by Robert Richardson’s cinematography, capturing events in 35mm, 16mm and grainy Super 8. Then there’s the cast – one of the ’90s’ finest ensembles.
Gary Oldman virtually disappears inside his role as the “patsy” Lee Harvey Oswald; Joe Pesci is like a lit fuse as the wig-wearing, chain-smoking, paranoid David Ferrie; Tommy Lee Jones has rarely been better as socialite Clay Shaw, the man our protagonist – New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) – brings to trial.
Costner, meanwhile, is dignity incarnate as “a mouse fighting a gorilla”, who grabs his Mr Smith Goes To Washington moment with both hands in that final courtroom address.
OK, so Stone goes overboard painting Garrison’s apple-pie home-life with Sissy Spacek (in a thankless role) and John Williams’ parping score hardly helps. But for all its flaws, JFK brilliantly captures the mood of America; reeling in shock on the cusp of disillusionment.
Maybe not all the pieces are there; perhaps it will always be “a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma”, but at least Stone asks us to consider the bigger picture.