I used to be obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. From the age of 10 until my mid-teens (when I finally realized the fallacious nature of most, if not all, conspiracy theories), I formulated different theories as often as I changed socks. On any given day, I was as likely to be convinced that Fidel Castro was behind the plot to kill Kennedy as I was to believe that it was an elaborate plan by the Mafia. JFK's assassination is unusual in the realm of conspiracy theories, in that everyone is a suspect, and it is impossible to rule anyone out. Unlike other popular conspiracies (from the moon landing to 9/11), there is no iron-clad explanation that holds up under intense scrutiny.
Oliver Stone's "JFK" takes the uncertainty surrounding Kennedy's murder and exploits it to masterful effect. Back when the film was first released in 1991, it brewed up a storm of controversy because audiences simply didn't know how to react to such a brazenly unfocused examination of such a confusing subject, and it was believed that Stone was attempting to offer plausible solutions to the many mysteries surrounding that terrible day. Although I concede the possibility that Stone has indeed been elected mayor of Crazytown, I think it's more likely that he intended his film to serve as a reflection of a national mood rather than a definitive statement on its subject.
Of course, Stone's intentions are debatable. The quality of his film, however, is beyond reproach. The director's cut clocks in at almost three-and-a-half hours, but Stone keeps the story moving at such a feverish pace that it flies by in no time. You would think that watching a team of investigators (led by Kevin Costner as real-life conspiracy theorist Jim Garrison, no less) debate evidence and interview witnesses for more than 200 minutes would grow tiresome, but in fact the opposite is true. The viewer remains transfixed on every carefully contracted frame, and in the end you're left dizzied by both the film's style and its substance.
The cast is so ponderous that it would be impossible to list every A-list actor who appears on screen, but highlights include Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, the shadowy businessman who appears to be connected to everyone and everything; Michael Rooker as Bill Broussard, Garrison's right-hand man; and Gary Oldman as the man himself, Lee Harvey Oswald. Every one of the dozens of performers command every scene they're in, and with so many great actors in one film it can be overwhelming at times.
Yet Stone, contrary to the unfocused nature of his film, remains attentive throughout. He has made better and more warmly received films, but if there's one that could be said to be the definitive Oliver Stone picture - that is, the one film that showcases the filmmaker's signature idiosyncrasies in all their glory - this is it.
"JFK" is rated R for violence, profanity and sexual situations.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.