Revisiting Oliver Stone’s 1991 muckraking masterpiece.

The thing about this film which hit me so hard when I first saw it (at the tender age of 16) was that it’s more than three hours long, and it just flew by. I’m sure that it’s Oliver Stone’s crowning achievement as a film maker; where it may lack in historic accuracy (probable), it excels in sheer visual, visceral impact. The stylistic camerawork, the mish-mash of film stock, light and colour, the hyperkinetic editing that blended historical footage, with super crisp footage, and the brand new scenes shot to look like they were 30 years old. The film’s grasp of the facts may be in question, but as a piece of masterful storytelling, it’s a work of astonishing muckraking perfection.

Every single working actor in Hollywood appeared in the film – it was among the more impressive casts that had been assembled for one piece in years. But first among equals is the star. This is right up there with Kevin Costner’s finest work – and he’s a guy who having spent much of his career being a movie star in a bunch of movie star roles, has it in him to be an actor of substance and presence (A Perfect World, Wyatt Earp, Tin Cup). As Garrison, he infuses the tale with his all-American everyman quality, playing the New Orleans DA as flawed, yet purposeful; a vagabond being driven to the mental edge by a messianic determination to figure things out. His delivery of the closing argument of the Clay Shaw trial taps into a reserve of raw emotion – the frustration of Kennedy’s true believers who never bought in to the ‘lone gunman’ malarky. Tommy Lee Jones exudes a quiet cool as the suspicious former CIA man Clay Shaw; his pre-Men in Black swagger accompanying his head-to-toe ‘dandy in white’ get-up.

One of my all-time favourite sequences is in this film, where Costner’s Garrison goes to Washington to meet up with the fictitious/composite character X, played with astonishing presence and gravitas by Donald Sutherland. This elaborate sequence, where X explains the history of black ops in the corridors of power, his observing the set of circumstances in the weeks leading up to the assassination, and his clinical deconstruction of the intelligence and protective protocols that failed in Dallas in November 1963. Sutherland does most of the talking; Costner basically gets taken to school as the avalanche of information falls onto him.

“No one has said, ‘He must die.’ There’s been no vote. Nothing’s on paper. It’s as old as the crucifixion. Or the military firing squad. Five bullets, one blank. No one’s guilty, because anyone in the power structure who knows anything has a plausible deniability. There are no compromising connections except at the most secret point. But what’s paramount, is that it must succeed. No matter how many die or how much it costs, the perpetrators must be on the winning side and never subject to prosecution for anything by anyone. That is a coup d’état.”

By the time the scene is over, X has dumped this world of info on Garrison’s shoulders and walked away, I was slain. That scene is worth the price of the film , any old day of the week.

I’ve never understood the gripes people had with films being ‘historically inaccurate’. First of all, they’re all actors, and it’s a film. Everyone’s pretending. It’s not the role of the director to play events exactly as they happened. People like Milos Forman (Amadeus), John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and David Fincher (The Social Network) are storytellers, not documentarians. Their films are fictionalized accounts of real people and events, and it’s the very nature of narrative film making that dramatic license has to be taken. You’re telling a story for the sake of enlightenment and entertainment in two to three hours. Everyone won’t have said everything exactly as it happened; it just can’t be done, and if it can, it probably wouldn’t be that interesting.

It’s mine, yours, everyone’s responsibility to find out on our own if what’s on screen really happened – if such information is that important to you. For me, it’s neither here nor there. Movies exist to stir emotional truth, as opposed to historic accuracy. Get over it.

If JFK taught me anything, it’s that suspicion and doubt are powerful things, and that simply accepting the status quo isn’t good for society – be it ‘Oswald acted alone’, or ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ that was apparently set upon Bill Clinton. Just accepting what you’re told can be a form of oppression in itself, so we need to, as X tells us in the film, do our own thinking. Were Garrison’s and Stone’s theories flawed, or wrong? Maybe. Possibly. I don’t know. I wasn’t there, so I can only assume. All I do know is that this is a brilliant film.

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