JFK (1991): Oliver Stone’s Oscar-Nominated Conspirational Thriller, Starring Kevin Costner

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is an event that changed forever American history, society, and culture.  The gruesome image of this tumultuous event is as vivid today as it was on November 22, 1963.  It is a searing icon, imprinted on the minds of Americans as the mythic symbol of a world that suddenly went crazy.  The Kennedy assassination is more than a historical event, it’ a personal point of reference for everyone old enough to remember that day in Dallas.  Whether a fan of the president or a foe, everyone remembers where he or she was at the time.

The scar is still raw, decades later.  Despite investigations, congressional hearings, and countless books and articles, questions around and about the assassination have not been answered properly, and justice has not undeniably been served.

The Kennedy myth has prevailed in numerous cultural products of the last four decades, from Andy Warhol’s painted photographs to the volumes of reminiscences by Camelot’s knights; from odes to irreverent satires and TV miniseries to supermarket tabloids and wall hangings.

In the early 1990s, a new cycle of movies in one way or another revisit the scene of what must be the single most spectacular and traumatic crime of our time.

Oliver Stone’s JFK, a conspiracy movie par excellence, is a riveting, controversial meditation, in which he tries to transform and redefine the details of John F. Kennedy assassination theory of the past three decades.

The movie’s protagonist is Jim Garrison (well played by Kevin Costner, then at the height of his popularity), the New Orleans District Attorney. In 1967, Garrison conducted an unsuccessful prosecution of local businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones0 for complicity in Kennedy’s coldly calculated murder.

Though Shaw’s connection to the murder is vague, it’s still intriguing, for Garrison is using the trail as a pretext to promote his own theory that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) was only one of several gunmen involved. Moreover, he advances the proposition that Oswald might not have fired a single shot, as the latter claimed at the time of his arrest.

Though the theory and ‘facts” of Stone’s film were dismissed by many politicians and viewers, JFK exerted huge impact.  Indeed, a new legislation was introduced in Congress in March 1992, in a concerted struggle to release the files of FBI, CIA and other governmental agencies related to the Kennedy assassination.  It was a major victory as those files had been ordered sealed until 2029.

It’s to Stone’s credit as co-writer and director that, despite the verbose nature of the narrative and lengthy running time (189 minutes to be exact), the film is largely engaging and provocative no matter what political camp you belong to.

The screenplay, which is mostly intelligently, is brought to life by a wonderful group of character actors, who play supporting parts.  In addition to Tommy Lee Jones, the cast includes Joe Pesci as David Ferrie, Jay O. Sanders as Lou Ivon, John Candy as Dean Andrews, Kevin bacon, Sissy Spacek and Laurie Metcalf.

For the most part, Stone succeeds in dramatizing and reacretaing “dry” historical evidence and testimonies by key players in the notorious case, which is still an open scar in American collective consciousness.

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by A. Kitman Ho and Oliver Stone

Screenplay (Adapted): Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar

Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones

Cinematography: Robert Richardson

Film Editing: Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia

Sound: Michael Minkler, Gregg Landaker, and Tod A. Maitland

Score (Original): John Williams

Oscar Awards: 2


Film Editing

Oscar Context


The big winner in 1991 was Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” which won Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Actress (Jodie Foster).  The three other Best Picture nominees were Disney’s animated musical “Beauty and the Beast,” Barry Levinson’s gangster biopic “Bugsy,” and Barbra Streisand’s melodrama “The Prince of Tides.”

The winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Jack Palance for “City Slickers,” the Sound Oscar went to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and the Scoring Award to Alan Menken for “Beauty and the Beast.”