When I first saw “JFK” in college, what jazzed me up was the way the story was told. I loved, and still love, the Machiavellian scheming. The head games. The cat-and-mouse chase. Jim Garrison’s tireless pursuit of the truth. Sure, Stone had an axe to grind, but he ground it to a near-perfect sharpness. Putting history and Stone’s truthiness aside for a moment, this is simply pure storytelling, a tour de force that shows why the director continues to work in Hollywood. Sometimes he misses the mark (“Natural Born Killers,” for example), but when he’s passionate about a subject, his work shines, as it does here, as well as in “Platoon” and “The Doors.” If you want to try to untangle this film from real history, then I will refer you to the bonus features in this excellent set, which I bumped up by a half-star in my rating simply because Warner went above and beyond the call of duty.
This Ultimate Collector’s Edition is highly recommended for not only fans of the film but also anyone who appreciates Kennedy’s legacy. As they’ve done with other classic films, Warner pulled out all the stops here, including not only the previously released two-disc Special Edition of the movie but also the documentary “The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings” and a host of printed materials: a book with photos of the cast and behind-the-scenes information; six photos of prominent cast members, with information about their real-life counterparts on the back; 20 photos from JFK’s personal life and presidency; and reproductions of important documents, including the text of JFK’s inauguration address and a handwritten letter to his father.
The SE is a treasure trove in itself, featuring an extended version of the movie with 17 minutes added, an audio commentary by Stone, a 90-minute documentary, nearly an hour of deleted or extended scenes with optional commentary by Stone, and a pair of featurettes. The director isn’t the most exciting guy to listen to for over three hours, unless you’re a die-hard fan of Stone and/or a big JFK assassination conspiracy buff, but he offers plenty of tidbits for those who want to mine the feature film commentary track, as well as the discussions accompanying the extra scenes. He does a nice job of dissecting not just the assassination conspiracy theories but also the lambasting the film received from some quarters, in a few cases even before it was released.
The deleted and extended footage on disc two is fascinating, although with 17 minutes put back into the film — some of which probably didn’t need to be there — I can see why Stone wisely decided against reinserting that other stuff too and winding up with a movie north of four hours. And, yes, one of those scenes is an alternate ending, so it’s obviously a choice of that or the old one. I vote for keeping everything the way it was, although with more time and energy, I could probably compare and contrast the theatrical and extended versions. Stone’s commentaries on these scenes provide a glimpse into their context within the overall movie and why they were ultimately jettisoned. The audio and video quality of the scenes isn’t very good, but I don’t see the point in Warner spending extra money to clean up excised footage.
Disc two also includes a pair of featurettes: “Meet Mr. X,” which looks at the Donald Sutherland character, and “Assassination Update: The New Documents,” which is pretty self-explanatory. Both of them serve as nice appetizers for the main course, “Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy,” which runs about 90 minutes and gets into not only the assassination theories but also how they relate to the film. Stone, cast members, journalists, and others offer their comments for a discussion that ultimately lets you make up your own mind.
The third disc in this set contains the 128-minute “The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings,” which traces the family’s history from its dirt-poor immigration to the United States in 1848 through their triumphs over a century later and the tragedies that sadly only began with JFK’s assassination. (A reproduction of a 1960 Kennedy campaign button is included in the DVD case.) This documentary is a nice way to get the big picture view after spending several hours immersed in the minutiae of the events that spiraled out of those few minutes in Dallas in November 1963. Forty-five years later, we’re still trying to wrap our heads around not only those events but also the Kennedys’ entire legacy.