JFK (1991)

No Stone Unturned

I’m aware in modern times conspiracy theories have become detrimental in discovering the actual truth (largely thanks to the internet) but I can’t deny that I just love this sort of stuff. JFK requires your utmost attention and at a runtime of three hours, it feels like the movie leaves no stone upturned (pardon the pun) in its examination and deconstruction of the Kennedy assassination. Admittedly the first time I watched JFK I didn’t understand much of what is discussed in the film. It’s a lot to digest in a single viewing but there are more intriguing theories here than an entire season of Ancient Aliens (minus the bad haircuts and awkward line delivery); but I can happily watch JFK multiple times to further understand it and eat up every single word of dialogue. I doubt we will ever need another film made about the Kennedy assassination; what highly talented filmmaker could be more passionate about the subject matter? I also highly recommend watching the director’s cut for even more conspiracy goodness to evoke the paranoia in you.

JFK is one of those movies which makes you most appreciate the art of editing, incorporating many layers of time and reels of stock footage; no scene during the movie’s three hours is edited in a standard fashion. The editing help make the film’s exposition exciting; a character may be describing an event as the scene cuts to just that in an obscured or dreamlike manner. The Mr. X sequence with Donald Sutherland is a perfect example of how to pull of engrossing exposition; plus is there a more classic cold war, spy movie type scene than meeting a suited man in the park to receive classified information. Likewise, John Williams’ theme for JFK evokes my inner patriotic American, even if I’m not American. The militaristic and at other times conspiratorial nature of the score helps make the movie as compelling as it is. The black & white scenes such as those featuring the military feel reminiscent of Seven Days In May with shades throughout of the John Frankenheimer style. I’m sure Stone must have also taken some pointers from the first movie about the Kennedy assassination, 1973’s Executive Action.

JFK continues the tradition of films such as The Longest Day in which a large ensemble cast of familiar faces and great screen presences to help guide us through the story. It’s amazing seeing different generations of actors doing some of the best work their careers and utilizing their screen personas to full effect even if many of them are only on screen for short spaces of time. Some of the figures in the story strike me as too bizarre to have been real-life people, especially David Ferrie and Claw Shaw.

I’ve always been in defense of Kevin Costner against criticisms of being a dull actor. Granted his career did go downhill in mid 90’s and has never fully recovered but in his heyday of the late 1980’s/early 90’s he was such a hot streak of films. Casting him in the role of Jim Garrison couldn’t be more perfect as Costner is much like a modern-day classic movie actor in the vein of everymen like James Stewart, Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper. He’s been most commonly compared to Cooper (the courtroom section of the film is reminiscent of Cooper’s role in The Fountainhead) although with his southern demeanor I would compare him to being a modern-day Henry Fonda. I would defy anyone to call Costner a bad actor after watching the film’s courtroom scene. Talking almost non-stop for 40 minutes and never losing my attention while exuding a stern, emotional and towards the end of the speech, a fragile voice; with his final conclusion bringing a tear to my eye.

I find Jim Garrison’s family life interesting itself, mostly from the relationship with his wife. What does he see in her? She does not support his endeavors, despite his noble cause and unlike her husband, she is susceptible to believing what the media tells her. Here is a man who spends the movie questioning and fighting the system yet has a wife with a conformist personality. I can’t say for certain what they were like in real life but the in film I grew to dislike her character.

JFK  draws no conclusions, it doesn’t prove who assassinated Kennedy and allows the viewer to make up their own mind. Stone may be often criticized for his use of a dramatist’s license but as I say with many films based on historical events; this can make for a more compelling story. Even if there are untruths present, the film can act as a gateway to wanting to discover the real story. The movie did leave me a feeling of (good) anger and is one of the films I can credit with helping to influence the way I think.

“Dedicated to the young in whose the spirit the search for truth marches on.”

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Fail-Safe (1964)

Fail-Safe or Strangelove? That Is the Question

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Fail-Safe is largely overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove due to both movies being released in the same year. Both films deal with the events leading up to a nuclear strike although Fail-Safe takes a serious approach as opposed to the comedic nature of Dr. Strangelove. I much prefer Fail-Safe which I feel is a considerably more suspenseful film than Dr. Strangelove is a funny film. Fail-Safe examines in step by step detail what could potentially happen if a technical mishap gave pilots on a bomber the order to drop a nuclear bomb, in this case on the city of Moscow. The movie never explains what the technical mishaps was but the rest of the film examines in precise detail the actions which would be carried out if such a thing was too happen; primarily trying to stop the bombers and convincing the Soviets that the oncoming attack is accidental. Although the opening scene at the rodeo seems rather pretentious, Fail-Safe is a no-nonsense, straight to the point wordy drama. Like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe is a film driven by heart-pounding wordy exchanges.

Playing the President of The United States requires an actor with charisma and a commanding screen presence, no surprise that Henry Fonda pulls off the role with the greatest of ease. As a huge Henry Fonda fan, I do delight in seeing him as the most powerful man in the world. Along with James Stewart and Gary Cooper as actors who best embody the everyman, I feel this is one of the best roles of his career, representing the ideal American President (on the surface level at least) I’m sure many wish for (no political party is mentioned) as he tries to remain calm under the most extreme pressure.

Fonda spends almost the entire film in a small room only being accompanied by his Russian language translator Buck (Larry Hagman). This one aspect of the film did have questioning why the President isn’t surrounded by advisers and associates but this one liberty does create a sense of loneliness and claustrophobia with the film’s use of high contrast black and white cinematography also heightens the sense of fear and giving the film a great visual flair in one of the most visually stunning black & white films of the 1960s’s. Hagman’s performance itself is especially impressive as his character translates Russian to English as he listens to it being spoken, talking in a uniquely awkward manner in several sequences throughout the film, the first of which is a single, lengthy uncut shot.

The only other liberty I have to question in Fail-Safe is the failure of the wife of the bomber pilot O’Grady to tell him something only the two of them would know when speaking to him over the radio in an attempted to divert the bomber from destroying Moscow and convince them this isn’t an impression from Soviet spies – Could have at least been worth an attempt in order to avoid World War III.

Comedic actor Walter Matthau shows off his dramatic stripes as the cynical nuclear expert Professor Groeteschele, whom is more concerned with the political and economic aspects of nuclear warfare as opposed to the cost to human life. He is cold hearted and has no sentimental side to him and even gets pleasure making discussions of nuclear war into a piece of sick entertainment as seen at a house party during the beginning of the film. Later he makes very questionable recommendations in an attempt to have communism destroyed when the opportunity arises due to the technical mishap. His final worlds in Fail-Safe are a recommendation to prioritise recovering business records in New York City over the recovery of survivors and the dead as apparently, the economy depends on it. Whether or not this and other actions are justified, Groeteschele is a character who gives off bad vibes throughout the film and appears to enjoy his job a little too much.

The movie contains a disclaimer at the end that the US military has procedures in place to prevent the film’s events from occurring actually occurring but with a character like Matthau’s being a government adviser, I wonder what kind of statement the movie is making. The Congressman Mr. Raskob acts as the audience getaway character, perplexed and terrified of the technology he is being given a tour off at the war room of Strategic Air Command while the military personnel act in a confident manner to the improbability of anything going wrong. I doubt Fail-Safe is going to give any viewers a pro-nuclear mindset and will leave a chill down your spine. I feel nobody does thought-provoking and issue-based films (or issuetainment) as well as Sidney Lumet but none quite as terrifying as Fail-Safe.