JFK (1991)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes,

Oliver Stone’s "JFK" is a remarkable film that is too often overshadowed by the very real events upon which it is based and by the perceived political agenda of its director. But, as Stone himself has stated on numerous occasions, the movie is not meant to stand as a definitive historical document but rather as an alternative look at what might have happened on that fateful day in Dallas given the conflicting and incomplete information that came out of the official final word on President Kennedy’s assassination, The Warren Commission Report. Much of "JFK" is based on known fact but Stone has taken it one step further and extrapolated out a variety of possible realities based on the many unanswered questions and perplexing coincidences that surround the case.

The central character in the film is Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the district attorney from New Orleans who actually brought the case of the Kennedy assassination to court — some three years after the fact. Although his attempt to convict Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) of conspiracy in the assassination of the president was doomed to failure, the facts that he uncovered, and continued to pursue through his later writings on the subject, gave a certain legitimacy to the claims by conspiracy theorists that all was not right with the official investigation. Through countless scenes, the government’s assertion that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) was in fact a lone gunman who acted of his own volition and with no outside help is continuously under siege. By the end of the film, every preconceived notion that the viewer may have had regarding the assassination has been called into question.

In addition to the actors mentioned above, "JFK" is a virtual who’s-who of Hollywood talent. Rounding out the cast are Kevin Bacon, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, and even John Candy. In all instances, the performers bring a certain degree of mystery to their roles that really reinforces the overall disconcerting feel of the film.

Enough about the film already, what about the DVD? Well, as many of you know, Warner first released "JFK" as a movie-only edition back in 1997. While this DVD featured Oliver Stone’s preferred director’s cut of the movie with some 17 additional minutes of footage reinserted, the video was non-<$16x9,anamorphic> and the audio was a merely serviceable DD 2.0 mix. In addition, the lack of any extras was a shame and the disc itself was a dreaded "flipper". With this new release, Warner has addressed all of these issues and "JFK" is at long last available in a fine special edition DVD.

"JFK" is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, preserving the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the original theatrical release. Sharpness is usually quite solid although the extensive use of filters lends a somewhat soft appearance to the image in a number of scenes. Black levels and contrast are good with only the darkest of scenes losing fine shadow detail. Colors are accurate and exhibit no signs of bleeding but the palette is, for the most part, somewhat muted. I could spot no instances of compression artifacts and the edge enhancement that plagued the original release is mercifully gone. The video is a marked improvement over the old release and, while it isn’t a perfect transfer, I could find no glaring issues with the work Warner has done preparing this release.

Just as the video has been upgraded for the new special edition, so too has the audio. Replacing the fairly good <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 mix on the previous release is a brand-new <$5.1,5.1 channel> Dolby Digital soundtrack available in both English and French. The increase in dynamic range afforded by this new mix really makes John Williams’s moving score come alive and adds some overall depth to the soundtrack as a whole. Surround use is frequent and well-integrated and dialogue is always clear and firmly anchored to the center. While this new <$5.1,5.1 mix> certainly won’t give the best soundtracks a run for their money, it is a fair improvement over the previous release and is very well done.

Now we come to that facet of DVD that truly defines a special edition — the extras. Seeing as how the film itself is quite long, Warner has taken the step of making "JFK" into a two-disc release in order to accommodate the plentiful bonus features.

Disc One features the movie itself and provides a very engaging <$commentary,commentary track> by Oliver Stone. I’ve listened to a number of his commentaries and they are always informative, entertaining, and full of great personal and professional recollections. "JFK" is no exception as the director delves into every facet of this remarkable film. His tone is always conversational which makes the three plus hours spent listening to him more enjoyable than one might expect. Rounding out the extras on Disc One are cast and crew bios and filmographies as well as a list of the awards that "JFK" has garnered.

Disc Two is where the real strength of this special edition resides. First up is a 15 minute interview entitled "Meet Mr. X: The Personality and Thoughts of Fletcher Prouty" in which the real-life Mr. X discusses his particular take on the assassination. Played by Donald Sutherland in the movie, Mr. X was to Jim Garrison as Deep Throat was to Bob Woodward — a shadowy source who provides the hints needed to further the investigation. Next up is "Assassination Update: The New Documents," a 30 minute multimedia essay hosted by noted conspiracy theorist James DiEugenio. Combining text, photographs, and video clips, Mr. DiEugenio delivers a very riveting, if not a bit overwhelming and scattershot, look at the facts of the case that have come to light in recent years.

Are we done yet? Not even close. Also included on Disc Two is 50 minutes of additional footage that can be viewed individually or as a complete set and with or without Oliver Stone’s accompanying commentary. Combine this with the 17 minutes previously added back into the film and you have well over an hour of footage that wasn’t in the original theatrical release. As is the case with some of the scenes that were added to the director’s cut, much of this bonus material is redundant. Nevertheless, there are some real gems here and it’s great that this abundance of cutting room casualties are included on the DVD.

Rounding out the extras on Disc Two is the DVD-ROM content that features links to a number of websites, a series of theatrical trailers for this and other Oliver Stone films, print reviews of "JFK," and a link for a future online chat with Oliver Stone. Whew!

Now we turn to an aspect of this DVD that I rarely mention in a review — the packaging. "JFK" is presented in Warner’s preferred snapper case, which should come as no surprise. But, in order to accommodate the two discs, a pocket has been added to the cover flap and Disc Two resides there in a flimsy little envelope. It really is a screwy method that may be a bit rough on that second disc over the long haul so it’s best that the buyer be forewarned. But, on the plus side, Warner has taken the negative comments about this packaging to heart and have promised to come up with a better alternative for any future two disc sets.

"JFK" is a thought-provoking film that remains almost as big a conundrum as the subject upon which it is based. Many viewers and critics see it as nothing more than another political rant by that crazy Ollie Stone. Others have had their eyes opened wide upon seeing it and no longer view the world in quite the same rosy light as they once did. Skillfully filmed, well-acted, and at its very core quite unsettling, "JFK" stands as one of Oliver Stone’s finest films.

And what better way to treat a great film than with a brand new two disc special edition DVD? Featuring vastly improved video and audio, the new release presents "JFK" in fine fashion. The wealth of bonus features that examine the film itself, and the real-life events it revolves around, add some much needed depth to the understanding of this pivotal moment in American history. Throw in the fact that Warner is offering this two disc special edition for much less than some studios sell their bare-bones DVDs for and you have a sure-fire winner. The film and the DVD both come very highly recommended.