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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/2/04

JFK: Director's Cut
Special Edition - 1991 (2003) - Warner Bros.

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

JFK: Director's Cut - Special Edition Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A+

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
205 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, Digipack packaging with slipcase, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 103:05, at the start of chapter 45), audio commentary with director/co-writer Oliver Stone, cast and crew bios, awards listing, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (88 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - Special Features
NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy documentary (33 chapters), 12 deleted/extended scenes with optional audio commentary by Oliver Stone, 2 multimedia essays (Meet Mr. X: The Personality and Thoughts of Fletcher Prouty and Assassination Update: The New Documents), theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 Surround)

Every so often, a film comes along that draws an ideological line in the sand, making it virtually impossible to simply discuss its merits as a motion picture. You cannot address its strengths and weaknesses as a movie without getting into a debate about its subject matter. Currently, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is the agent provocateur du jour. I don't imagine Gibson and Oliver Stone would have too much common ground in a political discussion but I can't help but wonder if Gibson solicited Stone's advice on how to deal with the media in the wake of a firestorm of controversy. Stone is no stranger to pushing buttons and none of his frequently incendiary films provoked more attention than JFK, his 1991 examination of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Stone casts Kevin Costner at his most Gary Cooperish as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison. Deeply suspicious of the investigation done by the Warren Commission, which fingered Lee Harvey Oswald as the one and only person responsible for the murder, Garrison initiates his own line of inquiry. His work takes him "through the looking glass here, people," into a world of shadow governments and high-level conspiracies. It's a world that turned terms like grassy knoll, lone gunman, and book depository into familiar phrases and populated by mysterious characters like Jack Ruby, David Ferrie, and New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, the only person ever brought to trial for the assassination.

Whether or not you agree with the conclusions Stone draws from the evidence presented (some of which, I admit are somewhat spurious), I don't think you can deny that JFK is an eye-opening work. Many younger people probably believe that the assassination of Kennedy is ancient history. But the 1960's are closer than they think, particularly in the halls of power. If you believe as Stone does that the assassination was a coup d'etat marking a fundamental shift in the policies and balance of power in the American government, than you can't help but be a little nervous about how much residual effect that shift has on the country today. Even if you believe that Stone's theory is absurd and that the government played absolutely no role in Kennedy's death, you should still come away from the film demanding that the government immediately declassify each and every document relating to the investigation. Stone's film was certainly an important one in that it did speed the release of a number of key documents to the general public. But many continue to be locked away.

One reason for the extreme polarization of reactions to JFK is that, from a purely cinematic vantage, Stone's film is extremely well done, easily one of his best. Stone expertly juggles archive material, staged recreations, and dramatic material, using the entire arsenal of filmmaking techniques that were then available. The blending of real footage, including autopsy photographs, newsreels and the infamous Zapruder film, is so seamless it becomes all but impossible to know where one ends and the other begins (the film quite rightly won an Oscar for Film Editing). In some ways, this is one of JFK's most dangerous gambits. If you do no other reading or investigation on your own, it's easy to simply take Stone's word as the gospel truth.

Other aspects of the film are equally top-notch. Kevin Costner, who often seems out of his depth as an actor, is perfectly cast as our window into this world. He brings to the film just the right level of patriotism, ordinariness, and righteous indignation. The rest of the cast is a virtual who's who of A-list actors, including Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Donald Sutherland, and John Candy, among many, many others. Sometimes this star-studded casting can draw you out of the film and in lesser hands, this might very well have felt like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Assassination. Here, the presence of these very familiar faces gives Stone a level of credibility. People like Lemmon and Matthau provide the audience with a comfort level, allowing Stone to reach a far wider audience than a cast of unknowns would have.

Not everything in JFK gels, however. Stone continually ratchets up the tension and urgency of the investigation, only to stop things dead for a series of Capraesque scenes involving Garrison and his disbelieving wife (Sissy Spacek, doing the very best she can with an essentially thankless role). A little of this helps to demonstrate the uphill battle Garrison was waging, with Spacek serving as the voice of the millions of people who believed in the Warren Commission and felt Garrison should be leaving well enough alone. But even though it's understandable why Stone felt he had to show the toll the investigation was taking on Garrison's life, it's essentially beside the point of the main thrust of the film.

In addition, Warner's two-disc special edition includes only the extended director's cut and not the original theatrical version. The director's cut actually weakens the film to some degree, taking away from the investigation and focusing on tangential threads about the investigators themselves. None of the new material adds much of anything other than running time onto an already long movie. It simply reiterates points made in other, better scenes. Of course, Stone never met a dead horse he couldn't flog a little longer, so it's not too surprising that he prefers the longer version.

The latest two-disc version of JFK is no less than the third release of this film by Warner Bros. First, a single-disc, bare bones version, followed by a two-disc set as part of Warner's Oliver Stone collection. I assume next Warner will release a special gift set of JFK with collectible magic bullet. Technically, JFK Mark Three is identical to the Oliver Stone Collection release, albeit in much improved packaging (that release housed two discs in a single snapper case with the second disc tucked in an envelope inside the case). The previous versions have been reviewed previously and what was true then is true today. JFK finally looks and sounds great, despite the obvious technical difficulties in transferring this film to disc.

For extras, Warner has recycled everything from the previous special edition, including Stone's terrific commentary, nearly an hour's worth of deleted and extended scenes, and a pair of "multimedia essays" (i.e., featurettes). They're all terrific, then as now. So why exactly should you plunk down cold hard cash for yet another JFK? Well, if you're a casual fan, there's no reason at all. But if you're a hardcore Stone and/or Kennedy buff, or you haven't already got this movie, Warner has kicked in one more top-drawer extra: the feature-length documentary Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy, directed by Danny Schechter and Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple. This is exactly what this movie needed, an in-depth look at not just Jim Garrison's investigation but the entire spectrum of theories and conclusions surrounding the assassination. JFK itself is decidedly one-sided, as I think it should be. Stone isn't pretending to address all of the possible theories here. He's simply trying to convince his audience that Garrison's investigation was on the right track and this is what he believes happened. Beyond JFK addresses what Garrison did right and what his critics believe he did wrong, delves into the Warren investigation, possible mob ties, and much more. It's an absorbing, complex documentary and an ideal companion piece to Stone's film.

The Kennedy assassination was a turning point for this country and continues to be a lightning rod for controversy to this day. Witness the recent brouhaha over a cable documentary that explicitly tied presidential successor Lyndon Johnson to the assassination (even Stone didn't go quite that far). Oliver Stone's film does a brilliant job capturing the turmoil surrounding these events. It shows Stone at the height of his powers as a filmmaker, ably demonstrating both his strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. On DVD, Warner's latest special edition is definitely the one to get. The only real question is why they couldn't have released this as the second version. Let's face it, they could conceivably continue to release editions of JFK for years and years, updating it with the latest conspiracy theory documentaries and new findings. For now, though, enough is enough. Let this third special edition be the final word on Oliver Stone's JFK for the foreseeable future.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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