JFK - Blu-ray review

...if you can forget some of the hyperbole, JFK comes off as a first-rate mystery thriller.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Note: In the following joint review, guest reviewer Ranjan Pruthee and John provide their opinions on the film and its Video quality, with John also writing up the Introduction, the Audio, the Extras, and the Parting Thoughts.

A lot of critics and moviegoers have given director Oliver Stone the unfair reputation of being a far-out, left-wing kook, a biased reporter who distorts everything he touches. Admittedly, he has taken very personal points of view toward controversial subjects in several of his pictures like "Platoon," "Salvador," "Wall Street," "Talk Radio," and "Born on the Fourth of July"; and he has been stylistically over-the-top in at least one picture, "Natural Born Killers." But mostly Stone has been fair and balanced toward his subject matter in films like "The Doors," "Nixon," "U Turn," "Any Given Sunday," "Alexander," "World Trade Center," and "W." However, maybe the one picture that has done the most to brand Stone a nut job is 1991's "JFK," the director's embracing of attorney Jim Garrison's conspiracy theory regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Because I wanted my own review of "JFK" to be as fair and balanced as possible, I asked longtime DVDTOWN reader and friend Ranjan Pruthee to contribute some comments on the film before I remarked on it myself. Ranjan is an avid movie buff and as neutral an observer as I could imagine, and thought we'd all benefit from what he had to say.

The Film According to Ranjan:
After owning the unwatched SD DVD of "JFK" for four years, I recently received my BD copy from WB's on-line store. I popped the disc in my player just to check the HD video quality for a few minutes. What I watched completely surprised me from a filmmaking perspective. The opening montage presented in a documentary style tells us the events leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For that point onward, I was hooked on the movie for its entire duration.

From the beginning, Oliver Stone has captivated and polarized his critics and viewers around the world. Be it the issues associated with the Vietnam War presented in his movies, "Platoon," "Heaven & Earth," and "Born on Fourth of July" or immense controversies generated through his political movies such as "JFK" and "Nixon," Oliver Stone has managed to create an assembly of movies unmatched by any filmmaker so far.

America as a nation was undergoing a radical change starting in late 1958 with the Civil Rights Movement, followed up by a surge of American troops in Vietnam in the early 1960s that ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. In these tumultuous ten years, Americans also witnessed the assassination of its thirty-fifth president, John F Kennedy. Many questions were asked about the assassination: How could this happen in America? Who was the real perpetrator? Was there a conspiracy involved? The assassination during that time and to this day is still the subject of intense controversy and debate. In a search for the truth, Oliver Stone took upon himself the task of representing this historic event in his movie "JFK."

As a viewer, I could easily draw similarities between the story's real-life protagonist, Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, and Oliver Stone. First, both men were driven to uncover the truth and give us a different perspective on the events that transpired on the fateful day, 22 November, 1963. Second, in their quest for the truth, both men had an estranged relationship with the press and ultimately received death threats. Stone's "JFK" received scathing reviews in the press even before it was released. Third, and most important, both men had a belief and conviction that justice would someday be served. Many viewers would say that Oliver Stone went too far in accusing the Vice President during that time and in presenting a mysterious character known as "X" (similar to the "Deep Throat" character in "All the President's Men") who may never have existed.

Some viewers might feel manipulated by the propaganda. I sure was convinced that there was more than one shooter involved in the final showdown. No matter on what side of the table you are on, there is no denying that "JFK" represents a powerful drama that makes us think hard, and in the process raises more questions than answers.

Ranjan's film rating: 8/10.

The Film According to John:
Did he or didn't he? That is the question. In 1964 the official Warren Commission report (chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren) concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy. Fifteen years later, the congressional House Select Committee on Assassinations reviewed the case and theorized that a conspiracy may have been behind Kennedy's death. Since then, just about everybody has offered an opinion on the subject, with suspects ranging from the Mafia to the CIA, from the Russians to the Cubans, and even to Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

Director Oliver Stone and co-screenwriter Zachary Sklar based their movie on the books "On the Trail of the Assassins" by Jim Garrison and "Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy" by Jim Marrs. Since we may never get a definitive answer to the question of who killed the President, Garrison and Stone's ideas may be as good as any. More important, it's a darned good movie, with this Blu-ray "Director's Cut" adding another quarter of a hour to the running time.

In thinking back on all the review comments I've read or heard about "JFK" over the years, one of the overriding negative criticisms has always been that Stone never "proves" his point in the film. What this really sounds like to me is that many critics have a hard buying into any JFK conspiracy theory, and that that very fact has stopped them from simply enjoying the film as a film. The way I look at it, the movie presents only one of several possible and well-known conspiracy theories, and it does so in a wonderfully thrilling manner. What's more, the movie reminds me a lot of "All the President's Men" in that even though we know exactly how everything is going to turn out, the film offers a riveting mystery, anyhow. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the film as entertainment, if nothing else. If it prompts you to question the "official" reports of the JFK assassination, all the better, whether you believe Garrison and Stone's account or not. Then, if the movie goes on to prompt you to examine more carefully the things your government tells you, you might just make Stone proud.

Yes, "JFK" gets a little too preachy, with District Attorney Jim Garrison's closing argument probably going on too long; and yes, there are a few melodramatic moments that no doubt Stone (or Garrison) exaggerated for effect; and, yes, maybe we could have done without so much of Garrison's difficult home life distracting us from the main story. But these minor blemishes hardly stop a viewer from appreciating the movie's major charms: the accelerating tension, the suspense, and the sense of wonder and amazement it instills at the possible duplicity of so many real-life characters (to say nothing of the U.S. government).

Like Garrison's book, the movie features New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as its central figure. Remember, though, that the movie is a dramatization, not an autobiography or a documentary. Neither Garrison nor Stone expects us to believe that everything happened in real life the way it does in the story. But I'd say it's pretty close, with license for embellishment along the way.

Kevin Costner stars as Garrison, and given the actor's penchant for playing highly sincere, almost maddeningly decent human beings, he is a perfect fit for the high-minded public prosecutor. Garrison thinks early on that something is fishy about the JFK assassination, but the killing took place in Dallas, Texas, and he's a D.A. in Louisiana, so he doesn't immediately get involved. It takes him three years after the events of Dallas to begin putting pieces together that the Warren Commission seemed to have overlooked, and one of his chief suspects, Clay Shaw, is right there in New Orleans. Garrison becomes compelled to act--an obsession, perhaps paranoidal, that almost loses him his wife and family.

He begins with the obvious: Did anyone have reason to kill the President? You bet. In Kennedy's few years in office, he had become embroiled in the Bay of Pigs fiasco; in a fight against organized crime; in a war in Laos and Vietnam; and in the Cuban missile crisis, which involved both Cuba and Russia. Moreover, the country had elected Kennedy by the slimmest margin in American history. There were plenty of people who would liked to have seen him dead.

After that, Garrison began wondering why the government never followed up on so many leads in the case: Why they didn't interrogate witnesses thoroughly. Why the FBI and police questioned their chief suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, for twelve hours after the assassination with no lawyer present and nobody recording Oswald's answers. Why so many witnesses said the government had altered their testimonies in the final report. And why no one took seriously Oswald's story of his being "a patsy," a fall guy, even when a local nightclub owner and hoodlum, Jack Ruby, murdered Oswald in plain sight and on television, while Oswald was under guard!

Well, you can accept or reject Garrison and Stone's notions about a conspiracy, but it's hard to reject the capabilities of the supporting cast; they're all very, very good. This would start with Sissy Spacek as Garrison's wife Liz. While her husband is becoming ever more consumed by his desire to prosecute local entrepreneur Clay Shaw in a plot to kill the President, his wife just wants her husband to remember the family. For a time, at least, she doesn't quite believe in him, and Spacek's portrayal reveals well that split in her allegiance. Also good is Tommy Lee Jones as Shaw: smooth, suave, and slimy. And Jay O. Sanders and Michael Rooker as Garrison's top assistants; Kevin Bacon as a shadowy local figure associated with Shaw, a figure that Garrison hopes will be his star witness; and Gary Oldman (before he became as famous as he is today) as the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, doing a more than credible job of impersonating the man.

In addition to the major supporting roles, though, Stone chose to fill out a number of cameo parts with well-known faces. It's kind of a who's who of Hollywood, and it can be somewhat distracting from the seriousness of the rest of the movie. For instance, you'll find Edward Asner, Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, Joe Pesci, John Candy, Walter Matthau, and others popping up for a few minutes and then disappearing. "Oh, look, there's so-and-so." I suppose I should give Stone the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he used these actors so we would distinctly remember each of the minor characters, who might otherwise go unnoticed in a cast so large. Still, I found that, by and large, they took me out of the story line.

Stone's location shooting in Dallas, New Orleans, and Washington, DC, help establish and maintain the film's authenticity, even though, as I've said, he wasn't trying to make a documentary. He also has the common sense to let a scene flow through to its end without interrupting it every three seconds with multiple-angle shots, quick edits, and camera changes, so we get a believable sense of ever-building excitement and uncertainty without resorting to artificial stimuli.

Admittedly, it's hard for a person to accept a JFK conspiracy theory when its proponents want us to believe its scope is so large that practically everyone in the country was in on it but John Wilkes Booth. Still, if you can forget some of the hyperbole, "JFK" comes off as a first-rate mystery thriller. (Garrison was the only person ever to bring a suspect to trial for the JFK assassination.) You don't have to accept the evidence Garrison and Stone provide, but the way the filmmakers present it, it at least persuades you to believe that something untoward happened. Garrison and Stone may not have made their case in "JFK," but they planted a seed of doubt about the assassination that continues to this day.

Trivia note: Look for the real Jim Garrison (who died a year or so after the completion of the film) in the small role of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Given that Garrison looks reasonably like the man and that Garrison was a state Court of Appeals judge at the time he made the movie, the role is not really that much of a stretch for him.

John's film rating: 8/10.

Video:
Warner Bros. present the high-definition, Blu-ray Director's Cut of "JFK" in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 on a VC-1 encoded, dual-layer BD50 for maximum picture quality. More important, WB engineers appear to reproduce the movie in almost the way the studio showed it in motion-picture theaters. That is, the definition and color varies from scene to scene. When the movie begins, we get a good deal of archival footage in black-and-white, warts and all. When Oliver Stone's footage begins, it, too, looks almost like black-and-white, the color intentionally drained from the print and the focus softened. As the film goes on, the video quality improves dramatically, becoming clearer, sharper, and brighter, the colors deeper and richer. WB may have also applied a small degree of grain filtering, I don't know, but it is hardly noticeable and helps to maintain a consistent visual tone throughout the movie without upsetting the director's intent.

Here's Ranjan's view of the video quality: Just as he did in "Natural Born Killers," Oliver Stone switches between different styles from a documentary to a monochromatic look. The image improves as the movie progresses. No bright colors are seen during the first half of the movie. However, blacks and contrasts are solid during this period. The quality of the Blu-ray disc is clearly evident in the scene where Garrison is talking to Mr. X in a park. The skin tones are just fine, colors are bright, and edges are sharp. Overall, a great transfer.

Audio:
Definitely, choose the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 option if you can play it back. It is smoother and better defined than the regular Dolby Digital track that also accompanies the movie. In TrueHD you'll find the movie utilizing the surrounds to excellent advantage, with not only a good deal of ambient musical bloom in the rear channels but gunshots and environmental noises as well--rain, wind, thunder, cars, dogs, and such. Good dynamics, a reasonably well-extended frequency response, a deep bass, and realistically rendered dialogue all combine to make this drama more impressive than you might think.

Extras:
Not only do you get the three-and-and-half hour Director's Cut on the disc, you get a flock of standard-definition extras as well. First off, there's an audio commentary by director Oliver Stone that is something of a must for conspiracy-theory fans as well as film buffs. After that is a ninety-minute documentary, "Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy," made in 1992, that presents some of the pros and cons of the various theories. Next, there are twelve deleted and extended scenes, including an alternate ending, with optional director commentary, lasting about fifty-five minutes total. Then, there are two multimedia essays, "Assassination Updated," thirty minutes, and "Meet Mr. X: The Personality and Thoughts of Fletcher Prouty," eleven minutes.

The bonus materials conclude with a remarkable eighty-eight scene selections (I believe the most I've ever seen on a disc); a widescreen theatrical trailer (1.78:1 ratio); English and French spoken languages; and French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. You'll find the disc enclosed in the back of one of Warner Bros.' Digibook packages, basically a hardbound book containing thirty-eight pages of text and pictures on the movie.

Parting Thoughts:
The best compliment I can pay to Oliver Stone and his "JFK" movie is that almost three-and-a-half hours went by in what seemed like half that time. Stone never makes the case that Clay Shaw was guilty of anything any more than Garrison did at the trial, but both Garrison and Stone plant the seeds of doubt in the nation's mind that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. government was covering something up. As the movie's preface declares in a quote from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, "To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards of men." We must commend Garrison and Stone for asking the right questions and Stone for making so eye-opening and entertaining a picture.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
9
Film Value
8