Two Minutes of Perfect Cinema – JFK

2:23:30 – 2:25:30

The stand out scene of JFK starts two hours, forty three minutes and twenty seven seconds into the running time when New Orleans DA, Jim Garrison, starts to address the court room with the following words:

“To prove there was a conspiracy involving Claw Shaw you must first prove that there was more than one man involved in the assassination.”

In the ensuing half hour director Oliver Stone, through the mouth of Kevin Costner and with footage of the events described, lays out his theory for what really happened on November 22nd 1963, surrounding the murder of the 35th POTUS. It is a compelling history lesson and an excellent piece of film making but this is not the scene I wish to concentrate on here. Partly because it is difficult to know which two minutes to choose but also because there are any number of other moments in the film that lay out Stone’s case just as well. Throughout its lengthy running time the film relentlessly piles on different pieces of staggering evidence. It doesn’t matter whether it is all truth or outrageous conspiracy theory, and I think it is a mix of both, JFK is a great lesson on how to build an argument.

The scene I do want to discuss is two hours and twenty three minutes in, way past the full running time of most movies. Garrison/Costner and his team are gathered in his office still fighting to put a case together against alleged conspirator Clay Shaw. Costner is essentially playing the same dogged investigator he essayed in The Untouchables but it worked to brilliant effect there and does so once again. (I know Costner is judged, and quite rightly so, for his misjudged performances in Robin Hood and Waterworld but nothing should take away from how great he is when he wears a suit.) In the scene in question one of Garrison’s investigators, Michael Rooker’s Bill Broussard, is beginning to crack, suggesting that everything was down to the Mob not the CIA/FBI/military/government. Garrison’s lengthy response pretty much encapsulates the whole film, including the way its ideas veer from the factual to the fishy:

“Could the Mob change the parade route, Bill, or eliminate the protection for the President? Could the Mob send Oswald to Russia and get him back? Could the Mob get the FBI the CIA, and the Dallas Police to make a mess of the investigation? Could the Mob appoint the Warren Commission to cover it up? Could the Mob wreck the autopsy? Could the Mob influence the national media to go to sleep? And since when has the Mob used anything but .38’s for hits, up close. The Mob wouldn’t have the guts or the power for something of this magnitude. Assassins need payrolls, orders, times, schedules. This was a military-style ambush from start to finish… a coup d’etat with Lyndon Johnson waiting in the wings.”

Then come the words that for me highlight the true majesty of this film:

“Do you ever read your Shakespeare, Bill?”

The comparison is not an exaggeration, the events and themes of JFK are as Shakespearean in tone as anything in King Lear, Othello or Julius Caesar. This is history as epic and significant as anything involving the Plantagenet or Tudor monarchs, with plots and betrayals the equal of any in ancient Roman times. Yet these are times that those around us lived through, fifty years ago now but only twenty eight when the film was released. It just shows we are kidding ourselves if we think history can be kept at a safe distance and how the things that Shakespeare wrote about are as pertinent now as they were four hundred years ago. If the Bard were alive today he’d be writing the screenplays for things like this as well as Valkyrie, The Last King of Scotland and Zero Dark Thirty. As well as rom coms of course, he’d be writing them too.

Incidentally, the 1992 JFK Records Act, which was passed in response to public interest following the release of this film, stipulated that all secret US Government files relating to Kennedy’s assassination have to be released by 2017. That could be interesting but you just know it’s not going to be like it is in the movies.

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