When performing a sleight of hand, you shouldn’t let the trick go on too long. But shell-game artist Oliver Stone makes exactly that mistake with his new, extended JFK: The Director’s Cut, due out in video stores this week. It’s 17 minutes longer than the original, 3-hour-9-minute JFK released on video and laserdisc last May. That’s not a huge percentage in an already lengthy movie, but what a difference those minutes make.
The original JFK‘s wilder grand-conspiracy suppositions, culled mainly from the controversial investigations of the late Louisiana district attorney and judge Jim Garrison, went down easily thanks to Stone’s ruthless, caffeinated pacing. In this edition, new scenes running from under 30 seconds to as long as 8 minutes have been inserted in about 10 separate spots. Stone obviously thinks the changes strengthen his arguments. On the contrary, they’re overstated just enough to make you think, Wait a minute — I’m being suckered.
The first hour still plays fast and strong, because it’s exactly the same as the old version. But then Stone starts second-guessing himself with the additions. The first few are merely gratuitous; then disaster strikes in a longish, three-scene sequence, added about 2.5 hours in, that’s completely out of step with the rest of the movie. First, Garrison (Kevin Costner) appears on a late-night TV talk show to expound on his mystery-hobo-gunmen theories. It’s supposed to be a thinly disguised version of The Tonight Show, only here it’s called The Jerry Johnson Show, complete with an Ed McMahon-style sidekick and a host modeled on circa-’68 Johnny Carson (John Larroquette). The problem is, in a movie where most real-event sequences are played out with the actual names and some real footage, the switch to patently jokey, made-up personalities like this is bizarre.
On his way back to Louisiana, Garrison is then set up by cops in an airport men’s room and nearly arrested for soliciting sex. This unpleasant scene (based on unsubstantiated claims by Garrison) makes even more explicit the movie’s knee-jerk, homophobic equation of gayness with crime, corruption, and sleaze. It’s also wildly overplayed, like a fever dream. And finally, as Garrison arrives home to find his case against alleged conspirator Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) in a shambles, he announces to his staff and family that Bobby Kennedy will be shot because he wants to ”stop th’ wo-ah” — and that very night RFK is murdered. Clearly compressed for drama’s sake, the scene still comes off as literal and ludicrous, as if Garrison were some sort of all-seeing mystic.
The other added snippets — chiefly those about Oswald’s supposed CIA handler, George de Mohrenschildt, and some witnesses who said they saw Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, and Oswald together in a Louisiana town called Clinton — play better but hardly seem central to the movie’s uber-conspiracy case. They also stretch already-dizzying, overstuffed sequences to the breaking point; they’re interesting mostly as a lesson in how sensible Stone was to cut them in the first place. Of course, as with any movie on video, your fast-forward button can minimize the damage. But isn’t that supposed to be the director’s job, not the viewer’s?
Speaking of cuttable excess, there’s another new tape being promoted with The Director’s Cut, Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy. A sort of conspiracy-theory roundup sanctioned by Stone and directed by Danny Schechter (a former 20/20 producer) and Barbara Kopple (who made the Oscar-winning documentaries Harlan County, USA and American Dream), Beyond JFK came out a bastard, trailer-cum-documentary hybrid. The mix of fatuous, puffy cast interviews with more informed commentary from Walter Cronkite, Tom Wicker, and Jim Garrison, among others, is too breezy to be scholarship. It’s also redundant, summarizing the same subset of theories JFK spins out in much the same order, using archival clips of the real figures instead of actors. And just like the feature film, it introduces dissenting voices for the sole purpose of discrediting them.
What’s sneakiest of all in this repackaging and repromotion is that Stone apparently wants the new Director’s Cut to stand as the final, definitive, true-believer version, since it’s the only one that’s affordably priced. The original JFK still costs $95 to buy, which means even rental stores are more likely to stock up on the new version. Now that’s revisionist history. JFK: The Director’s Cut: B-; Beyond JFK: C+