Virginia Film Festival: JFK

Posted on November 6, 2011 by

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“To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men.” –Ella Wheeler Wilcox

These words open Oliver Stone’s famed thriller JFK, shown yesterday to a sold-out audience at The Culbreth Theater.  The film chronicles Defense Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination and the resulting trial against New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, believed to have been involved in the president’s death.  With help from an all-star cast including Kevin Costner as Garrison, Sissy Spacek, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Bacon, the film was nominated for eight Academy Award nominations, two of which it won.

Twenty years since the film’s release and nearly half a century since Kennedy’s assassination, the themes presented in the film still retain their poignancy.  It remains one of the most provocative and powerful political films of all time.  The audience, a diverse mix of young students and older adults, remained engaged throughout the film in spite of its 189-minute duration.

After the film, director Oliver Stone discussed the film and his own reaction to the Kennedy assassination in a panel mediated by Larry Sabato, director of the UVA Center for Politics. Stone was seventeen and in boarding school when the President was killed.  He recalls the chaos and confusion following the event and the profound feeling of shock that stunned the American public.  Two years later, he enlisted in the military and fought in Vietnam.  It was not until several years later in Havana that Stone was approached by Garrison’s agent, who insisted that Stone read his second book, On the Trail of the Assassins.  Stone discussed his immediate fascination with Garrison’s story and the process of making the film.  He alone interviewed over 50 people present at Dealey Plaza when the president was shot.  The actors were directed to perform extensive research on their roles, some going well above and beyond the normal preparation for a film role, interviewing eyewitnesses and in some cases the characters they were set to portray.  Beata Pozniak, who plays Oswald’s wife Marina studied all 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report and actually spent time living with Marina.

Sabato and Stone

Stone’s personal take on the film and its intentions were particularly interesting.  He has previously been quoted as calling the film a “counter myth to the fictional myth.”  While many people take the film literally, Stone warns one should take the events described with a grain of salt.  The film was intended to point out the fallacies in the Warren Commision Report and to raise questions — not to answer them.  All that said, the film is a fascinating and fast-paced thriller based on one of the most significant events in recent American History.  It was designed to make you think, and it was obvious that Stone’s goal to do so was a smashing success.

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