Oliver Stone

Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison and Donald Sutherland as X (really Fletcher Prouty) in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991)

Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison and Donald Sutherland as X (really Fletcher Prouty) in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991)

  • Born:  1946
  • Rank:  35
  • Score:  616.40
  • Awards:  2 Oscars / 2 DGA / BAFTA / 3 Golden Globes / BSFC / CFC
  • awards n0te:  He directed Platoon, to this date the only film to win Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Awards and go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
  • Nominations:  3 Oscars / 3 DGA / BAFTA / 4 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films:  17
  • Best:  Platoon
  • Worst:  U-Turn

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. Platoon – 1986
  2. JFK – 1991
  3. Born on the Fourth of July – 1989
  4. Salvador – 1986
  5. Nixon – 1995

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1986 – 2nd – Platoon
  • 1986 – 9th – Salvador
  • 1989 – 2nd – Born on the Fourth of July
  • 1991 – 2nd – JFK

Most people know the relevant facts: that he left Yale to volunteer for Vietnam, how his experiences there have colored all of his films.  Over the course of the next 20 years after Vietnam, he made two low budget horror films, neither particularly good, but he became known for his writing, even winning the Oscar for Midnight Express.  Then he went back to directing and in 1986 had the double whammy of Salvador and Platoon.  The latter was on the edge of the new trend to get a small limited release in L.A. to qualify for the Oscars and then open wide in January, and it worked as it won Best Picture and Best Director.  Since then, Stone has made a reputation for making controversial films, often with political overtones; these are the kinds of film that people feel the need to see so they can talk about them the next day.  He won a second Oscar for Born on the Fourth of July, created enormous controversy with JFK and looked to be at the top of his game.  But sadly, he stumbled.  Heaven and Earth and Natural Born Killers were solid but flawed while Nixon was better but still flawed.  Then he went into Rob Reiner territory and it seemed that all talent had deserted him.  He made U-Turn, a truly awful film, then followed it up with the relentlessly mediocre Any Given Sunday.  Then after a five year hiatus he returned with the awful Alexander, which wasn’t any better with the director’s cut.  His most recent two films are interesting in that they deal with controversial subjects but aren’t particularly controversial and don’t have much to see.  Yet World Trade Center and W. were both solid films and there is hope that there are more good films to come.

JFK – #2 film of 1991

That JFK finishes 2nd in my awards in 1991 for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Cinematography says less about JFK then it does about the brilliance of Silence of the Lambs.  For JFK is a magnificent film, unlike any other, not just because of its content, but because of the reactions that surrounded it and that didn’t dissipate for years (some would say they never did, as one avid film fan ranked it on AwardsDaily as one of the worst Best Picture nominees in history).

I don’t buy into conspiracy theories in general.  Bobby Kennedy and MLK were shot by lone crazed gunmen.  Diana died because he driver was drunk and driving too fast.  The Pentagon was hit by a plane.  To me those are all facts.  Occam’s razor – the notion that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one – is something I believe in.  But I can’t apply it to the JFK assassination because nothing there makes any sense to me.  The assassin doesn’t make sense to me.  The “reason” doesn’t make sense to me.  The “evidence” doesn’t make sense to me.  Everything about it screams that something is wrong.  And I don’t have an answer.  I don’t think Castro was involved.  I doubt that the mob was involved.  I discount the involvement of the Russians.  There were a lot of people who wanted Kennedy dead and in the end, he was dead.  That’s all I know for certain.

I’m not sure that Oliver Stone knows any more than I do (I have read 15 books on the assassination, including the Warren report, so I know quite a bit).  I’m sure we’re bothered by some of the same things because they were evident in the film, especially in some of the things that X says to Garrison.  Why would Dulles, a man who hated Kennedy with a passion be on the Warren Commission?  How can you fire that many bullets from a bolt-action rifle in that amount of time with any precision?  Why were Kennedy’s Vietnam withdrawal orders so quickly countermanded?  How can a bullet defy the laws of physics?  I don’t have all the answer and I’m sure Stone doesn’t either.  But we have a lot of the same questions.

There are people who passionately opposed this film, opposed what it said and how it said it, claimed that it was full of lies, that it was bad journalism.  But it wasn’t a work of journalism (though, to Stone’s credit, he included a lot of reference material in the printed screenplay as well as arguments on both sides).  I agree a lot with what Roger Ebert said: “My notion is that JFK is no more or less factual than Stone’s Nixon – or Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Amistad, Out of Africa, My Dog Skip, or any other movie based on “real life.”  All we can reasonably ask is that it be skillfully made, and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

It does approach emotional truth.  And it is extremely skillfully made.  Though I don’t give it any of those awards, it was a deserving film of all of them (and it did win Cinematography and Editing at the Oscars) and I do give it Best Score.  It has a kind of poetry in the way it weaves together documentary footage with the film, how the performances blend it with the reality.  There is even the hilarious surreal moment of Jim Garrison playing Earl Warren lambasting Jim Garrison.

It also has another kind of truth.  Stone didn’t just make up this story.  He used an actual person, Garrison, and the actual trial he prosecuted.  It becomes first a tragedy, then a mystery, then a courtroom drama and it stays very true to Garrison’s book, which is one hell of a read.  Garrison devoted his life to that case and Stone’s film is a testament to his dedication.  It has a very solid performance from Kevin Costner in the lead role with a somewhat questionable accent, but a perfect aura of fatalistic determination.  It has great supporting roles, especially from Tommy Lee Jones (who was Oscar nominated), Gary Oldman (who was still relatively unknown in the U.S. at that time) and Donald Sutherland, who does more with five minutes of pure exposition than any other actor could have.

Why do we go to the movies?  Do we go to be purely entertained?  If so, how can films like Leaving Las Vegas or The Piano ever be made?  Do we go to learn history?  If so, JFK is not actually a bad place to start as it does a very good job of telling the story of the only person to ever actually bring the JFK murder to trial.  And there are far more historically distorted films than this.  Do we go to find emotional truth?  Certainly not always, judging from the box office champion of 2009, Transformers.  But there is a core to all of these.  Films are an art form.  And this is an artistic triumph, a film of almost pure talking that somehow manages to fall into several genres and teach us something we might not have known.  As for what really happened?  Well, as the film says, THE PAST IS PROLOGUE.