Which JFK is your JFK? The war hero? The inspiring young president of the gilded “Camelot” era? Or the slain leader whose assassination a half-century ago today has fueled conspiracy theories ever since? You’ll find them all in a handsome box set, JFK 50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector’s Edition, which adds four DVDs worth of content atop a Blu-ray of the director’s cut of Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning JFK (1991), the motherlode of whispers and insinuations about that fateful day in Dallas.
JFK, the Blu-ray, is perhaps the least interesting component of this package, as it’s simply a repurposing of a five-year-old disc. And it’s something of a blown opportunity, too. The director’s cut of Stone’s Nixon, a less successful meditation on the presidency, restored compelling footage that uplifted an uncertain film; the 17 minutes added to JFK, already loaded for bear at its original length of 188 minutes, interrupt its Oscar-winning editing rhythms (and this movie is all about the wizardry of editing and cinematography, for which it won its other Academy Award). The theatrical cut deserves a Blu-ray of its own.
That caveat aside JFK continues to impress, folding in an all-star cast (solidly led by a muckraking Kevin Costner, near the apex of his popularity, and including a terrific John Candy) on its trail of the assassins. You don’t have to buy into Stone’s version of events to find it fully absorbing, or Jim Garrison’s for that matter. Tommy Lee Jones’ amused, Oscar-nominated performance, leading a cabal of bewigged homosexuals (Joe Pesci!) that the New Orleans district attorney targeted for conspiracy, is pretty much all that’s salvageable from that particular rabbit hole, as the filmmaker, using Garrison’s claims as a means to an end, digs deeper into government distrust. His bravura production, which gives the Zapruder film a workout, is made with unshakeable conviction and propulsively scored by John Williams, so you can look past its absurdities, overreaches (the dubious LBJ connection to the assassination), and lapses of taste (the documentary-style filming of Kennedy’s brain being removed, passed off as real in a movie where much is cleverly reproduced or concocted to bolster Stone’s case, is creepily TMI). And has anyone played “Basil Exposition” better than Donald Sutherland as “X,” the man at the center of the web? An enthralling monologue even if you believe that Oswald, portrayed as a dupe on the periphery by Gary Oldman, acted alone. JFK may be hogwash, but it’s hogwash served on a silver platter, with truffles.
You can meet “X,” aka Fletcher Prouty, on one of the disc extras. There’s a great deal of additional content here, drawn from prior DVD editions of a film that must be a reliable earner for Warner Bros.: an intensive, all-in Stone commentary, a 90-minute documentary that goes further into the cover-up scenario, a feature on the movie’s impact, and another hour’s worth of additional footage that includes an alternate ending. Somewhere in all this must be the ultimate version of the film; me, I’ll always recall the immersive shock of seeing Stone’s ghost-haunted requiem for our nation for the first time.
Stone’s imprint on this set is also felt in JFK: To the Brink, an episode about the Cuban Missile Crisis from his Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States, that’s included on a separate DVD. If his caffeinated bombast isn’t your thing (it’s worn thin since), you can unwind and reflect upon the other barebones discs in the set, which can also be purchased individually. Robert Kline’s JFK Remembered: 50 Years Later takes us through Kennedy’s 1,000-day presidency, and includes rare footage from the JFK Presidential Library & Museum. Covering much the same ground, but taken directly from the aftermath period (no conspiracies here), is 1964’s John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Days of Drums, a United States Information Agency production deemed so outstanding a special act of Congress allowed it to be shown in US theaters in 1966. Written and directed by Bruce Herschensohn, who went on to become a Nixon speech writer and GOP mover and shaker, and narrated by Gregory Peck, the film retains value beyond its propaganda.
I assume the Kennedy estate has made its peace with JFK, as the related movie book and character photo cards share space in the box with photos and correspondence selected from the library and museum, a 32-page book of quotations (“Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures”), and reproductions of a campaign poster (“Leadership for the 60’s”) and his inaugural address. As a keepsake it’s all very nice to own, and not exorbitantly priced. (Completists can add 1973’s conspiracy-infused Executive Action, and 2000’s missile crisis drama, Thirteen Days, with Costner, on their own) Of particular interest is a pressed disc edition of P.T. 109, a Warner Archive DVD-R. The story of Kennedy’s World War II service, it was the first movie about a sitting president (was Stone’s W., 35 years later, the second?), and premiered just months before his assassination. Dully directed by Leslie Martinson, who went on to Batman episodes and the 1966 feature film, it’s standard-issue stuff, and was only modestly successful in its day. But it’s captivating to watch Cliff Robertson set the template for future movie and TV Kennedys, most recently Rob Lowe (Killing Kennedy) and James Marsden, the only president not to embarrass himself in The Butler. Strong, brave, and enthusiastic, he’s a potent reminder of what was lost soon afterwards.