& getting back to my point about first-time viewing. must've been 1991. for some bizarre reason (i was, what, 9 or 10 years old?) i tagged along with my mum & her mum to see 'jfk' at the camperdown cinema. camperdown is a smallish country town about 2 & a half hours west of melbourne (a pretty town, actually, set below this big dormant volcano/crater-lake ) - as a kid we used to cruise down there two or three times a year & stay on a family farm.
from memory the theatre was empty. it was night. a summerish night, & they opened the side doors of the cinema to let a gorgeous breeze thru the place. i sat between my mum & my grandma & was mildly contented to find i was the only one to stay awake until the credits. my grandma gave in about the time kevin costner (whose face now adorns my bedroom wall courtesy of the movie poster) started interviewing donald sutherland - oh, sorry, 'X' - a vital half-hour sustained only by the fedoras & experienced urgency of sutherland's delivery. my mum relaxed into breezy sleep after double-checking with me that her mum was still alive - my grandma had really settled in, her mouth alarmingly open in repose. i'm near-certain there's a poem in this whole episode.
it wasn't that i was entranced that i managed to sit thru the full 3 hours. back then nothing really soaked in. there were a lot of names, a lot of connections, & a bit of action by way of flashbacks & the horrendous 'zapruder film' of the actual assassination, which we see towards the end of the film. more than anything i garnered a sense of intense, classy drama from the whole thing - especially from the black & white flashbacks, the very neatly edited packages of action that tend to accompany costner's voiceovers (inside & outside the courtroom).
i've sat thru 'jfk' about 10 times since. for a while there i embarrassed myself into believing much of what the film claims - that oswald didn't act alone, that he was indeed a 'patsy', as he claimed, & that kennedy was killed by way of an incredibly speculative & ludicrously multi-layered conspiracy involving about 1000 people, including LBJ. in high school i'd prattle onto various history teachers about my 'theories', ripped straight from the closing courtroom presentation of costner & co.
what a shock i got when i decided to 'read around', to see what people thought of the film, to see how costner's character (new orleans DA jim garrison) is judged by conspiracy-theorists & lone-gunman-believers alike. needless to say, the general consensus was incredibly & often eloquently unkind. watch the film, then spend half an hour reading a website like 'One Hundred Errors of Fact and Judgment in Oliver Stone's JFK':
& you begin to realise just how negligent & irresponsible a film 'jfk' really is. it's a stupidly speculative, wildly inaccurate & revoltingly libelous vision (stone - via garrison - essentially lays the blame for kennedy's death at the feet of innocent, ordinary & conveniently dead men). & yet inexplicably i cannot stop acknowledging it as a masterpiece of detective/P.I. fiction (with admittedly jarring patriotic overtones).
perhaps it's the performances. costner is good because he's dull; stone knows the real interest lies in the surrounding cast (perhaps the oddest yet most ordinary set of real-life people ever portrayed on screen) - the same cast don delillo utilises in his 'libra'. tommy lee jones as the king conspirator, 'clay shaw'; entepreneur & socialite - such a fine, upright but arrogant performance. joe pesci as david ferrie - a rare instance wherein pesci doesn't play joe pesci, but an openly insecure, aggressive, ludicrously high-strung idiot. so many little cameo roles for people who would never have imagined they'd EVER be portrayed by hollywood stars on the big screen. & therein probably lies the secret behind the power of certain performances - pesci, lee jones etc realised that they were playing figures from history who are not really that special. they had to make them seem important in order to add to the gravity of this 'history as lightning' tale we're told. thus the powerful sense of farce about guys like shaw/ferrie/dean andrews/even oswald.
but all blame, both for the film's wild inaccuracies & its dramatic successes, its fundamental ability to get us interested in such a convoluted tale, must rest with oliver stone. he's quoted somewhere as saying he loved the story for its mystery, its dramatic & stylistic possibilities - a plot traced to a random pistol-whipping in a P.I.'s office on a rainy night, a cross-texas drive in a massive thunderstorm. it's this kind of noir-ish spirit he combines so well with a paranoid patriotism to create such a horrendously flawed but compelling epic.