Annotated Screenplay

JFK (1991)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

I have several reasons for recommending this Oliver Stone (Nixon) film, but none of them are because of any particular admiration for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the late President. This movie might have better been named Garrison, instead of JFK, because it is not really about JFK’s life but instead it is about Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner, Open Range) efforts to discover what actually happened to JFK on and around that fateful day in Dallas, Nov. 22nd 1963. I am not a student of any of the theories purporting to explain the Kennedy assassination. I am not particularly interested in Garrison’s theory as presented in this movie (or how Garrison may have actually thought differently in reality). Focusing on those details would miss what I believe to be the major reasons to watch this film. There are several excellent reasons to watch this movie.

First, it gives many of the very good reasons to question the “official story” of what happened in Dallas so long ago. The movie spreads many details before the viewer in its great length (205 minutes) hardly any of which support the idea that Oswald (Gary Oldman, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) acted alone to kill JFK. I don’t know how well accepted the Warren Commission report on JFK’s assassination was when this film was made, but it was accepted by most people at the time of the events in the movie. Today the official government explanation is not widely accepted and many people believe there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, although I don’t know that any one theory dominates. In spreading this doubt of the official version of these events the movie also spreads skepticism about other official government explanations.

Second, it shows that a dedicated group of individuals: Jim Garrison and his crew (not meaning the conspirators in this mention), can make a positive difference in the world. Although Jim Garrison was a politician himself, and therefore very likely a flawed person, he was dedicated to discovering what actually happened to someone for whom he had great admiration (I do not mean to say that I agree about Garrison’s view of JFK). Garrison was very dedicated to finding out the truth about the assassination. Garrison actually appears in the film, ironically playing the part of Chief Justice Earl Warren. His efforts to uncover the truth have undoubtedly made a difference leading to the lack of acceptance for the official version of events on Nov. 22nd 1963. This growth of skepticism for government authority can only be a good thing in the USA.

Third, in dialog by both the lead character in the trial’s final summation argument near the end of the film and in statements by secondary characters throughout the film the root villain of the movie is identified as the State and politics itself. This message comes through very strongly from Garrison, more so as the movie progresses. It also is acknowledged by reluctant witnesses, such as Dean Andrews (John Candy, Vacation) who somewhat cynically says “Kennedy's as dead as that crab meat, the government's alive and breathing. You gonna line up with a dead man Jimbo?” It comes through most explicitly from X (Donald Sutherland, The Puppet Masters) in several excellent quotes, such as: “Well they've been doing it all through history. Kings are killed, Mr. Garrison, politics is power, nothing more!” This message comes through time and again from many characters throughout the movie.

The movie opens with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in which he sagely warns of the growth of the military industrial complex. In the opening scenes the movie has a newsreel style and gives historical background on the world politics of the early 1960’s leading up to Kennedy’s assassination. One thing readily apparent from the scenes in the film surrounding the assassination (as well as my recollection of the time, and politics since) is that political polarization in America is nothing new to the 21st century. Eventually the action of the film focuses on events in New Orleans related to the Dallas JFK shooting with Garrison in his role as District Attorney and his developing quest for truth.

This movie is filled with great insights, but one of my favorites occurs during Garrison’s conversation in Washington DC with the black ops specialist X (“I could give you a false name, but I won't. Just call me ‘X’."). When explaining how events unfold X tells Garrison: “The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is the war. The authority of the State over its people resides in its war powers.”

It seems that has not yet changed. We can hope that some day it will, and do whatever we can to reduce the State's authority. One obvious way would be to avoid war. If you have “liberal” friends who often dismiss involved arguments about who benefits from world events as “conspiracy theories”, having them watch JFK might be one way of helping to open their eyes. Often times there really are conspiracies.