JFK appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The movie boasted some strong elements but also came with a mix of negatives.
JFK combined archival footage - mostly from the Sixties - and new shots meant to look old as well as material intended to appear “normal”, though stylized. Because of the mixture of film elements, an accurate grade became difficult to issue. Nonetheless, I thought the disc suffered from a few more flaws than were necessary.
Sharpness was usually fine, though not consistent. Many shots offered good clarity and accuracy, but more than a few non-stylistic exceptions occurred. I noticed periodic – and not-infrequent – instances of scenes that seemed somewhat soft and bland.
I noticed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge haloes didn’t crop up through the flick. Print flaws largely were restricted to film grain, much of which was manufactured for the movie; whenever Stone used black and white footage, he added grain to give it that “aged” appearance.
There were also some scratches and blotches placed in the new material to make it seem older. For the other scenes, however, the movie looked clean and fresh. I saw a few speckles and a tiny amount of grit, but otherwise the film was free from defects.
Most of JFK featured a fairly restricted palette, as the movie often opted for a sepia tint that made sense for this kind of subject. However, the execution of the hues appeared erratic. While I won’t claim to be an expert on JFK, I’ve seen the movie at least six or seven times, and I don’t recall colors as cold as what I saw here. Although the sepia tint always appeared, the flick looked more desaturated than I recalled, and color-related inconsistencies cropped up along the way. For instance, sometimes the “sepia” appeared somewhat pink, or it could look blue.
When allowed to shine, the colors could seem good; for instance, Easter shots offered pretty vivid tones. However, even there, I noticed some problems, as the hues could appear a bit messy. Overall color reproduction varied from solid to flat. Black levels seemed dark and deep, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but usually avoided any excessive opacity; a couple of scenes looked slightly too thick, but these were rare. Ultimately, JFK mixed ups and downs to earn a “C” for its visuals.
As for the flick’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1, it worked well. The forward soundstage dominated the audio, but I was pleased to hear the breadth of the work. John Williams’ effective score spread neatly across the front channels and added depth to the film. Quiet a lot of ambient audio also appeared in the forward speakers; most of this stayed fairly subdued - such as cars passing in the background - but I found the audio to seem natural and well integrated.
The surrounds largely contributed atmospheric sound, with their main impact resulting from the dramatic impact of gunshots. Some good ambiance appeared as well through music and general background effects. Split-surround usage was limited but adds occasional substance to the track.
Audio quality always appeared strong. Dialogue seemed natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects occasionally displayed some minor distortion - exclusively during gunshots - but they usually seemed clean and crisp, with good realism and clarity.
John Williams’ score came across best of all, as it played with excellent smoothness and depth. The martial drums worked especially well, as they beat clearly and display tight bass. Although JFK wasn’t an action-extravaganza, the soundtrack worked well to support the material and it added a nice touch.
How did the picture and audio compare to those of the last few DVD issues? (As far as I can tell the 2001, 2003 and 2008 appeared to be identical.) I thought the DVDs and the Blu-ray offered similar sound. The TrueHD track here packed a little more punch, but not enough to make it noticeably superior.
As for the visuals, that was a tougher situation to call. Despite my complaints about the picture, I’d say that the Blu-ray was better than the DVDs, but it wasn’t the big step up that I’d like. I’ve never been terribly satisfied with the DVDs, so I hoped the Blu-ray would give us the definitive transfer of JFK.
At times, the Blu-ray lived up to my hopes, but too many negatives came along for the ride. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it reused the same transfer created in 2001 for that DVD. I didn’t see anything here that inspired me to believe the Blu-ray got a brand-new presentation, especially since the 2008 Ultimate Collector’s Edition just recycled the same old 2001 disc. The Blu-ray was a step up but not a killer one.
In terms of extras, this Blu-ray includes everything from the 2003 set; although it came out the same time as the 2008 UCE DVD, it doesn’t provide that deluxe package’s exclusives.
First comes an audio commentary with director Oliver Stone, who offers a running, screen-specific track. The emphasis is upon the “facts” told during the film. On some occasions Stone mentions the actors and their efforts, but for the majority of the commentary, we hear Stone tell us the “truth” of the matter.
That makes the commentary a tough listen. Stone throws out tons of the usual nonsense, a fact that meant I worried my eyes would be stuck in permanent roll. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at a commentary before, but that happened here, as I couldn’t help but shout in disbelief at the idiocy spewed by Stone. The director tosses out so many lies and half-truths that I wasn’t sure I believed him when he stated his name!
At times you might wonder if you’re in Bizarro World. For instance, Stone talks about Perry Russo – the main inspiration for the composite character played by Kevin Bacon – and refers to him as a powerful, honest man. Really? That’d be the same Russo who flip-flopped on his story multiple times over the years?
Stone also tells us that witness Jean Hill never changed her story. Really? Would that be the same Jean Hill who embellished her tale every few years, changes that made her version of events more and more fantastic? On November 22, 1963, she stated she didn’t see anyone fire a weapon. By 1989, Hill averred that she did witness shooting from the grassy knoll. That’s a pretty big change for a story that Stone says remained the same.
And so on, and so on. When Stone talks about the film’s creation, the commentary becomes more involving and purposeful. Unfortunately, those moments emerge rather infrequently. Instead, Stone regales us with his pathetic defense of his idiotic, radically inaccurate film. It’s entertaining in a sad way, but you shouldn’t take it as anything remotely close to the truth.
The first disc includes a few other minor extras. We find a Cast and Crew section that provides filmographies for actors Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Jay O. Sanders, Sissy Spacek and Joe Pesci plus a brief biography of Stone. Awards details some of the prizes taken by the film.
On the second disc, we find a slew of Deleted Scenes. There are 12 in all - half of which are actually extended versions of existing scenes - and they run for a total of 54 minutes and 40 seconds. Not surprisingly, the completely new segments are the most interesting, as a few of the extensions are rather brief and don’t add much.
The fresh scenes are more fascinating, especially an odd dream sequence that features a dead Oswald. This may be hard to believe, but had these snippets appeared in the final film, they would have made Stone’s theories even more clear; with shots of the government poisoning Jack Ruby and Oswald’s near-deification, the propaganda factor ratchets up another notch.
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to view the excised footage, especially since all of the scenes can be watched with or without commentary from Stone. His remarks here expand upon the same topics covered in the feature track, though he focuses a bit more on the filmmaking process since he discusses the reasons the various clips were left out of the movie.
“Multimedia Essays” presents two different video features. Meet Mr. X: The Personality and Thoughts of Fletcher Prouty offers interviews with the man upon whom the film’s Donald Sutherland character was based. This 11-minute piece was surprisingly dull. Prouty mainly discusses his career and some aspects of the assassination, but I didn’t learn anything new or informative from his comments. It’s interesting to see the real man, but I didn’t gain anything from the experience.
Assassination Update - The New Documents takes a look at the aftermath effected by the film. For all its flaws, JFK did create renewed interest in the assassination and put pressure on politicians to open up sealed files. This program discusses the actions of the Assassination Records Review Board, a governmental group put together in the mid-Nineties to examine and release much of the previously unavailable records.
If you’re looking for any revelations, you’ll need to search elsewhere, as the material covered here seems pretty unspectacular. Narrated by conspiracy buff Jim DiEugenio, the 29-minute and 40-second program rehashes some of the same old material under the guise of fresh and exciting new details. To quote from the film, that dog don’t hunt, and I found this piece to be disappointingly drab as well.
After the film’s theatrical trailer, we find a documentary called Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy. Created around the time of the film’s theatrical release, this 89-minute and 55-second combines movie clips, archival footage and photos, and interviews with a long roster of participants.
We hear from Stone, Jim Garrison, Marina Oswald, Col. Fletcher Prouty, actors Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek, Ed Asner, New York Times writer Tom Wicker, newsmen Walter Cronkite, Robert MacNeil, assassination witnesses Jean Hill, Ed Hoffman, Beverly Oliver, Malcolm Summers, authors Jim Marrs, Zachary Sklar, Dan Moldea, Mark Lane, Major John Newman, John Davis and David Lifton, reporter Ike Pappas, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, media critic Jerry Policoff, forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, assassination researchers Mary Farrell, Wallace Milam, JFK Assassination Info Center chief Larry N. Howard, Oswald friend Ron Lewis, LBJ friend Madeleine Brown, author and photo analyst Robert Groden, Jack Ruby’s brother Earl, investigative report Jonathan Kwitny, journalist Rosemary James, political analyst Carl Oglesby, former FBI agent William Turner, assassination buff Jim DiEugenio, trial witness Perry Russo, Garrison assistants Numa Bertel and Lou Ivon, Shaw trial judge Edward A. Haggerty, politician David Duke, former CIA officer David MacMichael, former Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin, historian Stanley Karnow, and assassination archivist Jim Lesar.
The program attempts to cover many facets of the assassination controversy. It looks at the shooting itself, Garrison’s prosecution, Oswald, possible causes for the assassination, the aftermath, and other elements. While the show includes some dissenting voices, those who believe in a conspiracy heavily outweigh these. “Question” doesn’t take any particular viewpoint, but it never really opposes the conspiracy theories, and it accepts Stone’s notions without any qualifications.
That means you can forget about finding an even moderately objective examination of the subject from “Question”. It may cover different thoughts about the conspiracy, but it never doubts that one existed, and it accepts virtually every possibility as equally possible or probable. Some interesting notions appear in the documentary, but the absence of balance and an attempt to investigate the sources and differentiate between makes “Question” a flawed and not terribly useful program.
Oliver Stone has yet to make a better film than 1991’s JFK. His investigation of the Kennedy assassination makes for an absolutely riveting and thrilling experience that manages to compress almost three and a half hours of material into a timeframe that seems much shorter. However, Stone abuses his power so egregiously that I have a difficult time appreciating JFK because it’s such a load of hooey; the film combines fact and fiction in a reckless manner that turns the movie into a reprehensible assault on the truth.
The Blu-ray provides very good audio and extras but the picture disappoints. That makes this a release that doesn’t strongly improve its DVD predecessors. Yes, the Blu-ray offers superior visuals; its higher resolution and reduced digital artifacts mean it works better than the DVDs. However, it doesn’t blow them away; it looks decent but doesn’t give us the definitive presentation of the film.
To rate this film, visit the 2003 Special Edition review of JFK