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Those Warren Commission fellows were picking gnat shit out of peppers.

JFK: Director’s Cut
(1991)

Oliver Stone’s best work comes from a passionate desire to tell a story, having something he really wants to say and needs to get out of his system. Lapses in taste and judgement accompany even his strongest pictures, lurching imbalances, but his strengths more than counterweight them. Given the right material, he has the ability of a consummate storyteller and a master craftsman. JFK, his “alternative myth to the Warren Commission”, remains his high water mark. It’s an extraordinary piece of work, one that operates both as a polemic designed to pull apart the veracity of the Commission’s investigation into the assassination and an (very nearly) all-encompassing speculation as to the true perpetrators and their motives.


It’s surely no coincidence that, having covered some of his life’s major formative influences (Vietnam, Jim Morrison) and scaled his big political mountain, Stone hasn’t been the same filmmaker since. Without the fuel of personal investment to inform him, his pictures have become shallow or tawdry exercises in technique (U-Turn, Savages, Natural Born Killers) or somehow neutered (Nixon, W.; still his best works since) or ineffectual (World Trade Center, Wall Street 2). Surely, now more than ever, we need the Oliver Stone who gets riled, who can deliver a filmic tirade that makes us sit up and take notice? Perhaps he’s mellowed. But a chilled out Stone scarcely bears thinking about, less still why such a version would bother making movies. His self-conscious dedication of JFK to the “young”, in whom hopes for the future are held, belies the fact that he was making his strongest pictures in his late 30s and early 40s. A director with passion is not limited by age (look at Altman in the ‘70s – or indeed later), although it is a sad fact that such verve usually dwindles into mere routine, no matter who it is and in what field they endeavour.


I suggested Stone included the kitchen sink in his catch all account of assassination theories, that isn’t quite true. Presumably he felt the Marilyn Monroe theory didn’t even merit a sentence, which is probably reasonable. In contrast, Winter Kills, the fictionalised version of the JFK conspiracy made more than a decade earlier, includes her and makes much of the Mob angle.  Stone addresses the Mob, but very much as a means to dismiss it. During his typically fascinating commentary he discusses this theory a couple of times, and keeps coming back to the view that this kind of hit just wasn’t in their nature. Then there’s the Cuban element, a central aspect of discussions relating to activities of Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman); their counter-communist programmes were embedded in New Orleans where Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) brought his prosecution. Stone also sees the Cuban factor as very much peripheral, masking the true nature of what he believes transpired. He considers the size of the operation too vast to have involved Cuban culprits (elements such as instructing the security to stand down, changing the route) and the method too atypical for the Mob (it would be unheard of them to pull off a professional job like this, with snipers, he suggests). Stone pretty much takes the position of Garrison, that the murder was a consequence of the demands of an $80bn per year US war machine (with all the corporate contracts that involved). It was planned by a “disciplined group of cold warriors within the apparatus of the CIA, and possibly also the defence intelligence”. There was no need for a vast overarching network of conspirators “in the know”, a common criticism against such a plot as it would surely have leaked like a sieve, as apart from the small group at the top “the rest is cover-up”.


Stone bristles at the idea that he has presented a piece of propaganda, noting that he identifies contradictions throughout his treatise. And that’s a fair comment, although the counterarguments amounts to a small spill of backwash I the wake of the tidal wave of evidence in one direction. He utilises Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) throughout as the voice of scepticism. It is Broussard who puts forward the Mob theory, one Garrison considers valid but at best a “low level” involvement as per Jack Ruby’s (Brian Doyle Murray) presence. As Stone puts it, if he throws 140 pieces of deconstruction of the official myth at the screen and a significant proportion can be countered, that still leaves a substantial number of anomalies. He’s quite open that the unidentifiable tramps he draws attention to appear to have been satisfactorily explained. Lest we forget, for all his pugilistic reputation, Stone has a hearty sense of humour about himself (for example, his appearance in Dave where he appears as himself and draws attention to why he thinks Kline’s presidential stand-in is a fake).


Stone also stops short of specifically fingering any single person. Robin Ramsay, editor of the Lobster, is a proponent of the “Lyndon Johnson did it” hypothesis (his recent Konspiracy Korner in the Fortean Times JFK issue tackles this subject) and opines that it has not been embraced because it is not vast enough a theory. I can see that reasoning; we have now reached such an encompassing point, where conspiracies must be micro-managed by an all-powerful elite/illumanti/secret state, that anything less is small potatoes. Stone posits that Johnson may have been aware, or may have just been a willing figure “waiting in the wings”. The closest he comes to blaming the then VP is Bill’s outraged “Are you calling the President a murderer?” He won’t blame Hoover either, while pronouncing how much the FBI chief and Kennedy hated each other. Stone sees LBJ and Hoover as “accomplices after the fact”.


For Stone, the “Why?” is most important. As his “X” (Donald Sutherland) instructs Garrison, “Who benefited?” and “Who had the power to cover it up?” X’s answer is the military-industrial complex. Stone cites the Executive Order issued by Kennedy that Johnson subsequently superceded, and how he believes it would have spelled the end of Vietnam. Johnson was inaugurated and stepped up the war, and then came the Gulf of Tonkin incident. While Stone’s screenplay is sourced from both Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire, he offers no references to the Marrs theory that the Federal Reserve took out the President (another Executive Order, 11110, would, proponents argue, have transferred its power to the Department of the Treasury). And Marrs’ spotlight on all the dead witnesses piling up is certainly recognised in profile by Stone but he doesn’t build his case upon it. Nor does he dwell on notions of Soviet involvement. The Zapruder film hoax theory even post-dates Stone’s film, so he can claim ignorance there. Given how much ground he does cover, it’s a wonder the director gets all he does into his head-spinning 3½ hours. That is, if you’re watching the Director’s Cut. And who wouldn’t? This is an example of more only possibly equalling more.


Indeed, one of the most consistently impressive aspects of Stone’s picture is how he juggles his information so deftly.  He never appears to loses his train of thought, nor does he muddy the audience’s context for what they are seeing. Different narrative devices are employed to express what he regards as a Rashomon-style approach to subjective experience. His character witnesses aren’t always sure what they saw, but if they aren’t sure then Stone considers it fair game to take a few liberties.  So he shows a uniformed figure at the fence on the grassy knoll. I’m on board with this, because I don’t regard it as less than clear that Stone is indulging in pure speculation at key moments. It is supposed to be unclear if pieces of the puzzle do or don’t connect, and there are sure to be a liberal assortment of red herrings amidst the golden nuggets. Whether one is outraged or not depends on how much one is willing to attune to his discursive tone. If one takes a rigid, dogmatic view then any but the unembellished documentarian is to be condemned. Many have adopted such a stance, which is why Stone gets such a rough ride.


At his most acute, the director seizes on the “down the rabbit hole” weirdness that infuses the case. There’s the suggestion of the post-mortem messing with JFK’s body. Then, in particular, there’s the representation of the many different and bewildering Oswalds, and his strange political vacillations (not to mention his sojourn in the USSR). This murkiness is entirely appropriate, although for some it may be the point where they throw up their arms in despair of ever getting a grip on anything. This is nothing new; Winter Kills suggests just such intentional misdirection and misinformation is a key to the conspiracy. As Ramsay notes, “the Kennedy assassination material is now so vast and complicated that no journalist can “research the subject””; it becomes the domain of specialists and experts. If that’s the case for mainstream journalists, what fate lesser mortals who come across such epic subject matter in passing? I readily admit that I’ve always taken a somewhat distanced perspective for that very reason; I have no desire to be buried under an avalanche of investigatory material with no hope of emerging any the wiser. It seems to me that, by breaking it all down to the issues of money and power, Stone and Garrison are thinking along the right lines.


Stone repeatedly utiulises mini dissertations on key variances between the “facts” on record and the feasibility of events transpiring in said manner. Monologues are guided by a flashback structure showing different versions of each theory. We know this is all entirely subjective, so the chances are that if you have a problem with JFK it’s a problem with the entire approach the director takes. Stone invites such identification acutely at times; Garrison flinches at one point as he imagines a shot ringing out, which we hear on the soundtrack. The fictionalised account even has a self-reflexive quality when Stone uses actual footage of Oswald, or his Time photo cover, without concern that we won’t twig why he’s doing that or that he’s the same guy as Oldman.


Garrison visits the Book Depository with the type of rifle Oswald used so we can see first hand how the official story doesn’t make sense (an invention). Later, Stone uses this planted doubt again in Garrison’s court summation. Such repetition is also employed in the account of Oswald’s movements and how they don’t add up. By using characters who espouse objectionable doctrinal views (Kevin Bacon’s Willie O’Keefe) while testifying to a conspiracy, Stone is able to suggest that truth of a plot is non-partisan. This layering and reinforcement doesn’t furnish us with answers. Quite the contrary, it only begs questions. So too, the assertion by witnesses that their statements to the Commission were altered; this is about sifting through different viewpoints, presenting different possibilities (but granted, never losing sight of the one favoured by Stone).

It bears emphasising that JFK is an unwieldy beast. Sure, Stone uses every trick and bedazzlement in his arsenal to sell his story. But on paper, the belief that he can compel his audience with dry exposition and commentary might be seen as brazenly foolhardy.


Right from the first, he asks his audience to pay attention to a stream of factoids and assembled documentary footage. Narrated by Martin Sheen, this sets the scene for November 22 1963. From Eisenhower’s veiled warning of the danger of the military industrial complex to Castro, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stone orders his events as evidence informing his case. Garrison makes for a useful peg to hang his story on, as the only person to bring a trial regarding the murder of JFK, but such a tangential figure and case still requires much manoeuvring to make Dallas central. Hence the need to have Costner and Lou Ivon (Jay O Sanders) visit the Book Depository and check out the gun and lines of sight. Any opportunity he can find to add dramatic heft and spark to the proceedings, Stone takes. But he’s also never shy about asking his audience to do some work to meet him halfway.


X’s monologue (in the Director’s Cut) runs for the best part of 20 minutes, and it is central to Stone’s case. That’s 20 minutes of two guys sitting on a park bench (basically), no matter how you dress it up. And more, it’s Sutherland talking for the duration. Later, it’s Costner’s turn. And he’s required to present a trial that runs for nearly 40 minutes, much of which is taken up with Garrison’s impassioned closing monologue. Indeed, it comes as a surprise on revisiting the movie how little there is of witnesses taking the stand. Of course, there are naturally dramatic and gripping scenes along the way. Most particularly with Ferrie’s paranoia, the realisation that Clay Bertrand is Clay Shaw, the attempt to snare Garrison as a toilet trader, and the revelation that the DA’s offices are being bugged. But it’s the power of words and persuasive argument that leads the movie; there’s relatively little in the way of typically manufactured Hollywood thrills.


This is a thin line Stone is walking; his dish needs to be spicy enough to whet appetites but not so rich that the audience pushes away their plates. When Garrison illustrates the bizarre trajectory of the magic bullet or repeats the “Back and to the left” narration of Kennedy’s head shot (the ultimate sanitised snuff movie), it has true galvanising power; so much so that parodies have done nothing to diminish it (most famously in Seinfeld, which shared Wayne Knight; Numa here and Newman there). Further still, Stone’s film ends on a downer. Garrison loses the case. There’s no sweetening of the bitter pill, except to the extent that his is a (kind of) moral victory; if Garrison/Costner/Stone have succeeded only in raising a glimmer of doubt in the mind of the viewer (not that most probably need a whole lot of persuading) it becomes an upbeat finish of sorts.


Stone notes on the commentary how the picture was made in an extremely compressed a time frame. Some 70 days seems trifling for a picture of such breadth. It came together quickly, and it was edited quickly. The Oscar-winning screenplay was co-written with Zachary Sklar, who edited Garrison’s book. Robert Richardson was the DP, which must have been something of a dream job; it encouraged a raft of experimentation. The picture is replete with different film stocks (16mm 8mm 35mm), colour schemes and lighting (the fixation Richardson developed for bouncing light of his actors’ heads apparently caused testiness after a while). Richardson was a Stone mainstay from Salvador to U-Turn, seeing him through his golden period. He deservedly won the Oscar for his work, as did Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia for their editing; if the shooting was fast, the editing period was only more so for such a dense and potentially confusing piece of work.  It feels as if it has been meticulously planned, but the result is more a testament (it seems) to best results being produced when working against the clock.


There were a mere five months between the end of principal photography and the December 1991 release date. The ticking clock, appropriately, is also a major feature of one of John Williams’ best scores, coming towards the end of his Midas Touch period. Most of Williams’ cues were composed prior to seeing the film. If the sentimental elegiac ache and paean to a bygone age that is the central theme is best known, it is the ticking clock theme of paranoia and conspiracy that stands out most strongly. Elsewhere, a driving militaristic drumbeat informs the planning and inevitability of the hit on the cavalcade. There, perhaps, Williams falls back on a tried and tested formula (such rhythms accompany previous post-JFK conspiracy yarns The Parallax View and Winter Kills) but such familiarity makes it no less effective.


Jim Garrison: Let justice be done or the heavens fall.

In the run of superlatives surround JFK, you have to make significant time for the assembled cast. Wisely aware that identifiable stars in small roles provide much needed touchstones, saving on further detail and exposition (because there’s enough of that), Stone is blessed by some of Hollywood’s finest popping up for a couple of scenes (most doing so because the story means something to them). But front and centre is Costner, topping off a peak year. He’d never have it so good again. Oscar-garlanded for Dances with Wolves, then (nearly) topping the summer with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK sees him portray another of his morally unassailable archetypes. Previously this was most evident in The Untouchables as another historical figure, Elliot Ness. There, David Mamet purposefully played upon black and white/good and evil stock figures. Costner was the righteous fellow baptised into a mire of crime where, even though he gets his hands dirty, he emerges intact. Costner’s Garrison is driven to right wrongs, just as conservative in outlook as Ness, a figure who ironically finds himself battling the establishment due to his staunch principals.


As the stakes rise, he digs his feet in further. One of his first comments is “God, I’m ashamed to be an American today” on witnessing reactions to the assassination. Costner is fond of playing the anti-hero type, but it isn’t really his forte (see Waterworld, the point at which goodwill finally ran out for him); impassioned righteousness is at the core of his heroic leads and an audience wants to seen nothing more than his rising to fight the good fight (Open Range, a decade old, is his last great leading man role to date). But he also runs the risk of that fine upstanding drifting into unearned sentiment. Stone compares Costner’s courtroom scenes in JFK to Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and such unfiltered emotiveness and appeal to the “true” values of Americana has always been a weakness in the director (see both Platoon and Wall Street).


At times the director also undeniably over-ladles the syrup. Garrison’s home life gets perhaps a little too much screen time, since the beats are repeated and repeated until we cry “I’ve got the message; Garrison’s up against it from all sides!” And when Costner’s despairs, telling his wife how it is all “fucked”, or when his voice breaks up in the courtroom and a tear falls down his cheek (unscripted), you can’t help but reasonably request more restraint. But this is Oliver Stone, and lack of said is both his curse and blessing. Some of the deleted scenes (both those included in and excluded from the Director’s Cut) underline the DA’s uphill battle in a much more engaging fashion.


Where Costner does undeniably well is as the rock at the centre of the movie. He is quite willing just to be, not hogging the light from one-scene performers, knowing that his stillness is required to complement and send off the drama. I believe his accent has received criticism in some quarters, but I really have no idea how good or bad it is. As far as those cadenced sentences go, Stone affirms that Garrison actually spoke that way, but there’s a problem when he repeatedly offers up quotes during the trial in the form of “An author said”, “A poet said”, “A great man once said”. It verges on the platitudinous, and when other characters do it too (Ferrie, Broussard) there’s a distracting sense that Stone is trying to show how literate he is, or deluge us with the evidence of great thinkers to support his cause. Nevertheless, casting Costner is a coup to the film because he has an unfussy star presence; one that expounds sincerity. Stone notes the attempts to smear Garrison in a variety of ways, some of which we see, and we need to believe the man on screen is unimpeachable.


Sissy Spacek is effective in a different way as Liz Garrison. When Stone argues against presenting a revisionist take on the traditional ‘50s housewife that was Liz, a woman who was more concerned about image and reputation than the cause, he makes a strong case. But he seems to want it both ways; he allows Laurie Metcalf (always wonderful) to appear as an Assistant DA despite the fact that Garrison’s entourage were all male.  And he indulges the traditional rallying moment as Liz turns up at the trial to support her husband. This corniness is a push too far for me, and it’s only the momentum of the main narrative that fends off the sick bag. Stone is unapologetic, recognising the criticism, and his indulgence in the “Norman Rockwell” scenes of Garrison’s home life. And did we really need that discreet love-making scene where we tastefully fade out on the two after making up?


The likes of Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Walter Matthau and Donald Sutherland are sure-thing pros who communicate all they need to in a few short minutes (or 20 in Sutherland’s case). John Candy, apparently really nervous and sweaty as he doubted he had the dramatic chops for such a picture, is sublime as the hepcat sleaze ball lawyer Dean Andrews (rewatch the trailer, and he’s the first actor you’ll see). Such a shame that he had only a few years left. Brian Doyle Murray, Bill’s brother, is granted one of his rare substantial roles (I say substantial, but he’s barely in it) as Jack Ruby; he exudes a streetwise confidence, but you only really get a solid dose of him in the deleted scenes. Kevin Bacon gives his career a shot in the arm as composite homosexual con Willie O’Keefe, relishing every coarse line, sly innuendo and intolerant statement.


Jim Garrison: Who are you scared of Dave?

The biggest plaudits go to the triumvirate of Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman and Joe Pesci, however. In the case of the former two, JFK represented something of calling card as it led to a wash of high profile roles over the following years. Jones had been around forever, but plodded through the ‘80s with barely a murmur of recognition. I didn’t really know him when this came out, which must seem absurd given his later ubiquity. Even more odd is that this is such an atypical role for him; he relishes the chance to play slightly effete (only slightly though; this isn’t a camp performance) yet subdued and sinister. So why are so many of the roles that followed your common-or-garden gruff Tommy? He’s always good, but half the time you could pluck him from one movie and deposit him in the next and barely notice the difference.


Oldman had only recently fetched up in Hollywood and it says something that such an enigmatic part made such an impact. Stone uses him as something of a sponge, to soak up whichever interpretation of the facts are necessary at that moment. Yet Oldman is able to provoke stray sympathy (“What is wrong with this family?”) for a patsy who was sentenced without trial and will (possibly) never even be given the benefit of the doubt of an “alleged” murderer. As with Jones, he would spend much of the next period playing types, adding a bit of flavour to stock villains.


In contrast, I didn’t give Pesci’s performance the credit it deserved. He’d recently won the Oscar for Goodfellas, and here he was again, an amalgam of hyperbolic likable Lethal Weapon 2 Pesci and hyperbolic loathsome Scorsese Pesci. He’s utterly fantastic as Ferrie. Even without Stone’s claustrophobic camera and Williams’ ominous score, the wave of paranoia Ferrie elicits when telling Garrison he’s screwed is infectious. He’s as impressive in his own way as Costner and Sutherland are in thier monologues, and he needs to be; this is one of the most important scenes in the movie because it makes the fear real. Ferrie also represents a character whom Garrison let slip through his fingers; in the context of Stone’s account, the failure to provide him with protection leads directly to his unnatural demise. Pesci also provides many of JFK’s more amusing moments (there aren’t that many, understandably) as he comes on in a ridiculous wig and painted-on eyebrows. He blatantly lies to Garrison, leading to the best line in the picture.


Garrison: Dave, I find your story simply not believable.
Ferrie: Really? Which part?

While I’m a staunch admirer of the picture, it serves to remind oneself of the areas where Stone doesn’t quite hit the bullseye. He never really will consistently; he’s the kind of director who can only throw his jet-powered dart home while destroying every other point on the board and the surrounding wall. You have to be prepared. I’ve mentioned the penchant for literary quotations and allusions, from Kafka to Hamlet and beyond, and one might argue that the sainthood awarded Garrison is a little too much at times. Stone does make it clear that Garrison failed (in Ferrie’s case, and in one of the director’s cut scenes with the whacko trial witness). And it is entirely understandable that Stone should wish to venerate him since much of Garrison’s previous press had been scathingly antagonistic, intended to disembowel his reputation. But again, it’s about moderation. Having Garrison (in the Director’s Cut) pronouncing that Robert Kennedy will be next to buy the farm, only for it to be shown on the news a minute later, is a misjudgement on Stone’s part. Not because Garrison may well have, as Stone attests, said this, but because it is beating us with his insight.


Perhaps most tentative is the case that the ends justify the means with regard to Shaw. If Liz’s suggestion that Garrison is persecuting Shaw because he is a homosexual is an unconvincing attempt to pre-empt suggestions that the film is, if not outright homophobic, guilty of crass caricatures, just as problematic as the apparent support of the idea that Garrison’s creation of a patsy of his own is justifiable so long as it gets the story out there. X’s fictional figure provides Garrison with a helpful defence when he instructs that he now has no choice but to go to trial, but that’s a very charitable interpretation of Garrison’s decision. There’s no case here that, whatever nefarious CIA activities Shaw got up to (and it was later revealed that, despite denials, he did indeed work for them), could really link him to the assassination; only by several degrees of Kevin Bacon. Saying he’s a bad guy anyway so what does it matter isn’t really an argument; Garrison’s intentions were good, but he went about things in the wrong way (and the jury was therefore correct with the “not guilty” verdict, just as they were right to give later comment that while they were convinced the Warren Commission version of events was wrong, there was no evidence to take Shaw to the cleaners).


The issue of whether JFK is homophobic has been much discussed, and Stone probably comes out on the wrong side of a balanced approach. The backgrounds of Ferrie and Shaw and O’Keefe are all relevant to the case (although Garrison never brought up Shaw’s sexuality during the trial), but Stone’s rampantly decadent representation of them partying, complete with Jones layered in gold paint and Pesci sniffing poppers while Bacon larks about as Marie Antoinette, loses him any argument. It’s not just silly speculation; it comes with the implication of moral degeneracy.


I like most of the 16 minutes of additions in the Director’s Cut although I can understand some of the criticisms. The “Johnny Carson” scene feels entirely valid; it provides a helpful glimpse into how the (media) world outside is treating Garrison and the smear campaign he was experiencing. The menacing encounter in the public toilets (is this the only time in a movie we get see Costner taking a dump?) might be viewed as further evidence of homosexual disquiet on the director’s part, but it’s another sequence that succeeds through stressing how threatening Garrison’s case had become (Garrison claims such an encounter took place, so the creative licence is presumably limited if so). The inclusion of Ron Rifkin’s disturbed witness serves to add a bit more substance to the trial evidence, and there is also additional emphasis on Bill’s turning (which also underlines that Garrison made a mistake in trusting him).


As for the deleted scenes that remained deleted, Angela Lansbury’ scene as Garrison mum had the plug pulled before it was shot, which is probably a blessing; there’s enough domesticity in the picture as it is. A moment I’d love to have been included features the biggest laugh in the whole thing as one witness informs the deluged DA’s office that, “It was Jackie he was shooting at, but he missed”. Jack Ruby’s interrogation by the Warren Commission adds another effective dose of paranoia, although it also highlights that Stone’s casting of Garrison as Warren may have been a nice touch of irony but might not have served the picture ultimately. The scene where “oil man” Miller offers Garrison the position of federal judge if he will drop the case is effective enough, but ends on a familiar discussion between Jim and Bill. I didn’t think too much of Oldman’s method monologue, something he asked Stone if he could improvise but which feels indulgent. As for the bookend scene with Sutherland, it absolutely would have killed the climax to fall back on a load more exposition like that. It’s interesting to see how much of it was appropriated, ending up as X’s single appearance, however. And, while the end titles are rather graceless in their then form, there’s an effective sense of undiminished menace when we read of the mysterious deaths of individuals just before they were due to testify to the 1977 House Select Committee on Assassinations.


The legacy of JFK cannot be underestimated. Stone refers to it as a labour of love, and it might not quite be his best film (I still go with Salvador, the perfect combination of passionate anger expressed fluently and relentlessly) but it’s definitely his most important. It saw the sop of the appointment of an Assassinations Review Board but more importantly made conspiracy theory mainstream. If All the President’s Men is the accepted, verified face of conspiracy, JFK represents the boundless paranoia towards the machinations of the state and beyond. Just around the corner would be The X-Files (whose government informant cutely started out as Deep Throat and then became X). The floodgates were opened.


And for Stone, he sees the film as his The Godfather. And Nixon as his The Godfather Part II. I’ll go with the former, but unfortunately Nixon just isn’t that classic (underappreciated, nevertheless). The sad truth is, the really great Nixon story was told in Pakula’s film. Take that away and you can only make a “standard” biopic. Stone’s angle just wasn’t sufficiently bracing. But then, he really did start drifting away from his core strengths from JFK onwards. Who, seeing JFK for the first time today, wouldn’t laugh derisively at the idea that Stone’s World Trade Center movie would concern a trapped fire-fighter rather than draping itself in the 21st century’s most popular conspiracy case?



Stone expressed the view on his commentary that future generations would see the lies surrounding the JFK assassination as indicative of a period of “Consent, fear and mediocrity”, and it’s from such clear thinking that a film this strong and enduring emerges. Often Stone’s rhetoric can be overcooked; powerful, but less resonant due to its simplistic moral hues and lack of restraint (Platoon, Wall Street). Here he succeeds because what he presents is complex, dense, immersive and thought provoking. There is so much to absorb that the less considered aspects, such as Costner’s angelic protagonist, are unable to detract from the passion of Stone’s cause. This is Oliver Stone at his best.  

*****



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It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

You stole my car, and you killed my dog!

John Wick (2014)
(SPOILERS) For their directorial debut, ex-stunt guys Chad Stahelski and David Leitch plump for the old reliable “hit man comes out of retirement” plotline, courtesy of screenwriter Derek Kolstad, and throw caution to the wind. The result, John Wick, is one of last year’s geek and critical favourites, a fired up actioner that revels in its genre tropes and captures that elusive lightning in a bottle; a Keanu Reeves movie in which he is perfectly cast.

That said, some of the raves have probably gone slightly overboard. This is effective, silly, and enormous fun in its own hyper-violent way, but Stahelski and Leitch haven’t announced themselves stylistically so much as plastered the screen with ultra-violence and precision choreography. They have a bit of a way to go before they’re masters of their domain, and they most definitely need to stint on their seemingly insatiable appetite for a metalhead soundtrack. This kind of bludgeoning choice serves to undercut the action a…