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A Filmmaker's Guide to 'JFK' (1991) Pt. 1

Part 1: Cinematography, Atmosphere, and Use of Colour

The Trailer to JFK (1991)

It is recommended that you watch Oliver Stone's film JFK (1991) before reading this article, as it will make the article easier to understand. If you would like to get the most out of this article then I would watch the film more than once over.

This is one of the great movies of the nineties and also one of the most dramatic films you'll ever watch—but it's so naturalistic. It's a brilliant achievement of cinema and high drama and you can see the reason it was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. Some great performances are given in this film and you really shouldn't be missing out on watching them. Our job is going to be to study this film and how it presents the creation of intense drama to us and why. The question here is: How does the film create that high drama whilst retaining its realism?

Many films create drama so much that they lose their own sense of realism, but not this one. We have to look initially at what it's trying to achieve and then continue from there. In reality though, there are a number of answers to this question and we are going to explore each of them in either brief or extreme detail depending on how important they are in the filmmaking process to us aspiring directors and cinematographers, reviewers and analysts.

What we're going to concentrate on is the following:

  • Cinematography
  • Atmosphere
  • The Use of Colour

If you're going to go on in this article, then make sure you've watched the trailer and the film. Here's the trailer:

'JFK' (1991) Trailer

The trailer really gives you the starting point for watching the film. It shows you what the tone of the film is, it shows you the atmosphere, the way the characters are designed, even the key camera movements are shown in some of this trailer. The cinematography and atmosphere of this film are of high importance when it comes to what this film is aiming to achieve.

I believe that there is a clear want to achieve a link between documentary, docudrama and historical drama. There is a want by Oliver Stone to retain some authenticity in the film and this is done by some of the things we're going to have a look at in the film shortly.

First of all, before we get into looking at how the film works and having a look at answering our question, I want to explain that this film, like most other films of its kind, cannot be based solely on facts. Some of it has to be dramatised for the effect of the film selling as a piece of entertainment. Please do not get the want to retain authenticity confused with the making of a documentary. This is not a documentary, this is a piece of historical/biographical film. But it is a film all the same and is made for entertainment purposes. Expect some things to be either left out or added in to make it watchable.

Let's begin...

1. Cinematography

We're going to get the hardest one out of the way first and have a look at the great cinematography that makes this film what it is. You'll notice some strange things about this film that you probably think are odd for a film of the 1990s, but don't worry—it's all there for certain purposes. These purposes are:

  • To create "drama" and "intensity"
  • To create or sustain authenticity
  • To maintain subconscious connections between characters in the mind of the audience

Part 1: Quick Splicing and Connecting Characters

Example 1: We're going to take our first example for studying this and that will be to look at the scene in which Garrison finds out who they've blamed for the shooting of President Kennedy. What we get here is something that happens throughout the film on more than one occasion. You'll notice as soon as Oswald's face appears on the TV screen, we get some splice action between Garrison watching the television and what's on the television itself. Now if you measure the length of time, I don't think they'd leave the killer's face on the screen that long in real life, but for the effect of connecting these two characters it must be done.

It is also there to add to the story. It is a moment of foreshadowing that Garrison does not believe that this is the gunman. The disbelief physically symbolised by the quick cuts between Garrison and the television. It may be cliché in your eyes, but in this film it is never overused. The way in which it adds this intensity is also the static between the two characters. The one on the screen is a picture and therefore cannot move, but Garrison simply decides not to move, or really blink at all. It is adding to this sense of concentration Garrison has on the other character and it also is letting the audience know that through lack of movement and lack of expression.

Example 2: The next scene we're going to have a look at as an example for this type of splicing to create drama is the scene named "Oswald Is Shot" [informally]. It is when Garrison and his team are gathered in his office watching Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. The splicing technique here is pure brilliance and heightened drama.

The camera shows exactly what has just happened to Oswald and then, it splices between Garrison and his entire team, showing each of their reactions. Everyone is not just shocked, but also confused. The way in which this shows the heightened drama is by showing every single person's reaction and every single person is completely static, eyes on the television. Nobody moves, or talks or does anything. This is the same as the last scene we discussed and is done for the exact same reason. It is to add and foreshadow to what these people in this room are about to do and why they are about to do it.

Example 3: There is one more scene like this one and it is when Dave is brought into Garrison's office to discuss where he was on the days leading up to the killing and he stated he went to "shoot geese." Just look at the way nervousness is symbolised to create a sense of drama and intensity. We get a close up of Dave's lighter and then a quick splice to medium in which we see him smoking the cigarette. Instead of getting more of Garrison, we actually get more of the television behind Garrison on which Kennedy's funeral is playing.

After this, we get cuts between Dave and the television. This is not just a hint to the audience of his involvement but the close ups on his lighter and the smoking of his cigarette make us aware that there is a certain amount of nervousness in this scene. This creates a false sense of tension which never gets fulfilled. It is quite a brilliant arrangement of shots.

Part 2: Zooms and Narration

Example 1: I love how Oliver Stone uses zooming and narration in his film. The first example we're going to have a look at for this is the average zoom we get in the pub/bar scene in which the news report is playing regarding the President being shot. It may not be as quick as splicing, but there is a definite want to zoom slightly into important characters with important opinions adding to the storyline—this is also where Garrison's character is fully established. Through this zoom slightly on to his character, we get a sense of who he is and what he's doing.

The cinematography shows us the people that are closer to the camera matter more than the people further away from it. It's a brilliantly clever thing to do, which is also why when we cut to the people who are talking about the pros of Kennedy being shot, we get people who are fairly close to the camera as well. Their opinions are going to play a big part in the film.

Example 2: The second example we're going to have a look at is the narration that Garrison and some of his men do whilst they are standing in the middle of the road next to the CIA building, talking about the case re-opening. The best part about this scene is the creation of foreshadowing and drama through the use of the incredible cinematography. Instead of just the zoom-in on this film, we get a zoom-out on this scene. The camera zooms out so we get almost a bird's eye view of the three men. This is used for the effect of us seeing exactly where they are walking and yet, we can hear the narration very clearly throughout. This means there is an obvious connection between what the camera is doing and what the characters are saying. 

The camera then pans over to the CIA building, showing us the top of it through and above the trees. We get a clear connection between what they're talking about and the CIA building, meaning there is a theme of the government's nefarious activity in this part of the film and foreshadowing the future which will contain massive elements of the "Warren Commission."

Example 3: The third example I want to cover on this part is the way in which the narration and zoom work together in the scene where Garrison is talking about the people who knew Jack Ruby. What we see compared to what we hear and why is very important in this case.

What we see is various quick splices and zooms into the bloodied faces of dead people, presumably for shock value and authenticity of story and plot. This is done in black and white, not only for authenticity to the time but also because newspapers are printed in black and white. These scenes would've been conveying their authenticity through the use of these newspaper or reel film colours from the 50s and 60s. Some still being in black and white. The other reason would be to create the noir effect and to turn this film into a full-fledged crime drama. It has many aspects.

What we hear is Garrison narrating the people who knew Jack Ruby and now that we have this noir crime effect set up whilst we listen, we as an audience connect Jack Ruby to criminal activity almost subconsciously. It is very important that we have this in our minds for the rest of the movie since the entire case spurns off the moment Jack Ruby shoots Oswald. As the director, Stone doesn't want to just say "Jack Ruby was a criminal" because that's boring—he wants us to feel the drama of those that knew him. We have people who are dead and we have the black and white noir atmosphere and the quick splicing of the camera, I don't think he would need to say anything explicitly in this case.

Part 3: Montages and Narration

Montages are always good to use in film when you're creating high drama, but use it too much and it can just look a bit forced. Oliver Stone has an incredible method for montages, including replays, zoom-ins, and even pan shots. Let's have a look at them:

Example 1:  The first example we're going to look at is the opening scene and the Zapruder film. For those of you that don't know, the Zapruder film was the only clear film taken of the JFK Assassination, it shows all the shots and the movement of the President before he dies. Oliver Stone uses the Zapruder film in his own and creates a brilliant montage with cuts from his own actors acting and the original film itself.

What we get is the black and white of his own characters to add authenticity (which nobody will understand since the Zapruder film is in colour) and we have the various cuts of the Zapruder film inserted in to add again, the documentation part of this biographical drama. The replay of the shots ringing out and the President being killed adds to the drama, obviously, as it begins the ball rolling towards the main point of the film: to find out who killed Kennedy. I think that this is quite possibly one of the most brilliant and well-thought out montages in the film, though sometimes when you watch it, the whole thing seems a bit over the top because of the intensity.

But, this is exactly it, through the cinematography work on the montage, (the various cuts and splices and the zooms into the security, motorcade and other aspects of the Zapruder film), we get high-intensity for the very first scene. It may not be entirely accurate but it definitely gets the audience to watch the film.

Example 2:  The next example I want to look at is the way in which montages work when Susie is talking about Lee Harvey Oswald and his background, especially the part with LIFE magazine in it. What we have is not just a narration from Susie, but we also have the small snippets of Oswald's life that play out in the background. The most important one of these is the creation of the LIFE Magazine cover (which I will use for example 3).

Susie's narration over the different aspects of Oswald's life play a very important role in the film. It differentiates what we know about Oswald from what we don't. We get to see the research, but not the full story—which is why it's only a montage. The most brilliant thing about this montage is that we get various pictures of Oswald from the day he was caught, and the camera zooms in upon his eyes. This refers back to the fact Garrison said earlier in the film that Oswald looks pretty relaxed for a man who has been arrested on suspicion of killing the President. This is also an idea that comes back later in the film. It is this idea of Oswald looking relaxed that is why we get various close-ups of his eyes or zooms into his eyes. It is a brilliant way of subconsciously making us see something we didn't really see before.

Example 3: The LIFE Magazine cover creation starts off as just simple splices of someone cutting out a shape in a piece of paper whilst the narration is going on. Not only that, but there is non-diegetic synthesiser music in the background, making the scene seem slower than it actually is. The effect of this is that the quick splicing will not (in this case) give a false sense of tension and climax. Instead, this scene is used to convey a history of someone shady and unknown, which is the reason synthesisers are used.

The LIFE Magazine cover is then created and we have another scene where Oswald is complaining about it. When we get back to Susie, she has a copy in Garrison's house and starts talking about how it isn't him, pointing out shadow directions etc. This is the first real close-up we get of the magazine cover since it being made. This is not only to show authenticity but it's also to show the way in which the magazine was properly distributed so that it fell into the hands of Garrison's team members. It also shows how influential the media is over the Kennedy assassination is Garrison's team are using a phoney magazine cover as evidence that Oswald may be innocent.

2. Atmosphere

Atmosphere is of great importance when you're creating a film with so much historical weight and drama. Needless to say, this film is basically based on the crime of the century. The atmosphere is important because of its requirement to set the scene for the audience and also set the scene in which the actors do what they do. Atmosphere comes from music, the way in which the story is depicted and the different symbols of character design and development that we see dotted around the film as it progresses.

Part 1: Character Design

Example 1: Atmosphere and character design normally go hand-in-hand since the establishing of character normally tells us what they're going to be doing and what situations they're going to put themselves in. The first aspect of character design we get is seeing the office where Garrison works. It is filled, top to bottom, with old-styled books. This not only gives us access to his character on things we may not have immediately—but it also sets the tone for him being a key figure in the investigation.

Example 2: When William is talking to Garrison about Clay, there is a certain amount of character development we see to do with the double-life of Clay that William reveals. The fact that it is dark not only represents that this is something the audience are not supposed to know, but it also represents the fact that Clay might be a key figure in the darker side of the Kennedy investigation. This is built on when Garrison's team go looking for Clay later on in the film and the atmosphere is not only dark—but there's a celebration of death going on as well.

Example 3: The next piece of character development we have is when we have the flashbacks on to the Cuban communist party that Oswald is working at. In which Clay, Dave and Guy Bannister are all there. This not only shows us that all of these characters know each other and are, according to their positions, are against the Kennedy Presidency. But it also shows the audience that these are the men who are gathered on the opposing side to Garrison's team.

Part 2: Flashbacks

Example 1: The flashbacks we're going to talk about first are the ones on the Warren Report whilst it is being written. These are in a strange greyish hue and even though we aren't discussing use of colour yet, we are going to look at how the greyish hue makes the flashback seem more realistic. What we also have is the static of the characters in the shot. Not many people are moving around, this gives a sense on nervousness, something that's uncomfortable to talk about. It also gives a sense of authenticity. Especially regarding the court in which the Warren commission was written. It is dark and bleak, it's to do with death. But it adds to the atmosphere by giving the viewer this incredible sense of something that is disguised as a truth but yet went horribly wrong. This is purely done through the way people are standing—again, it's almost static. It looks like an interrogation scene.

Example 2: The opening is a really good one that establishes atmosphere. We're not talking about the scene in which the characters enter, we're talking about the actual opening to the film in which we hear the military music playing along with the opening narration some moments later. I want you to watch that scene again and think about the way it sets up the atmosphere for the rest of the film. We've initially got this marching beat which sets up the sense of urgency; something is about to take place and we already know that this is the Kennedy Assassination. We're then met with news reports, the Zapruder film and other things that were historically accurate for the day and time. What this seems to be creating is the authentic atmosphere that will continue throughout the film. We even have the history of JFK's rule as President. This is most obviously a flashback to the time "before the film begins" as it were.

Can I just add, I love the way that this is juxtaposed to the scene in the pub after Kennedy is assassinated. The opening to the film has such a bright atmosphere whilst setting up Kennedy's incredible rule, and then, when things start to include the communists, it begins to turn darker and darker. We go from Eisenhower to Kennedy, to the Bay of Pigs and then it gets dark in terms of atmosphere. We are being prepared from here for the Zapruder film and the assassination scene. But the way this is juxtaposed through dialogue to the pub scene is brilliant. Everything goes from bright to dark, whilst in the pub scene, everything goes from dark to brighter. In the pub scene, we go from a guy saying "Camelot in smithereens" to Garrison and his team talking things out, getting the ball rolling for the plot of the film.

Example 3: What we are going to have a look at now is Susie's speech on where Oswald was—this is the same scene that immediately precedes the LIFE Magazine photo analysis scene. What we have is the creation of Oswald as a man who was put somewhere by somebody due to the fact we have that various cutting that happens in the scene. Also, we have Susie's constant narration. The fact that she doesn't stop talking throughout the LIFE Magazine scene as well means that she obviously knows this stuff and therefore, gives the audience reassurance. This whole thing is atmosphere and what Susie is doing is retaining authenticity. For most of the film, various characters are trying to retain authenticity—but I personally think that this scene is one of the best to do it.

Part 3: Reports

Example 1: Reports are essential in this film and the first scene we are going to look at is the one where they're watching the assassination of Kennedy on the television in the pub. The main question is why have Garrison and some other people watch this on a television rather than just leaving the assassination montage as it was? Here's the answer. The way the camera zooms out to reveal a television screen is not uncommon in this film and nor is it uncommon for times when Garrison is looking for something important on the reports on TV. This creation of atmosphere not only adds to the authenticity of the time period but it also draws the audience into the film—the fact that the audience are watching the same thing the characters are makes the audience feel more involved with the story. That is essentially what this scene is for. It's used to take the audience back into the time in which Kennedy was assassinated in order to make them feel the events of the film more.

Example 2: Again, we're using the televised killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. The atmosphere is obviously tense or we wouldn't have that incredible splicing scene between the characters that we have in the film. We get to see everyone's reaction. But, the atmosphere before he's killed is tense as well. This is because most of the people watching this film already know that Oswald was killed, they just don't know when it's going to happen. The fact that we get to see the shooting of Oswald is very important as well because this means that Garrison's investigation has just become a lot harder to do. There is no alleged killer, there is no victim left and there are no witnesses as of yet. The fact we get to see every reaction as well adds to this atmosphere of pure disbelief because of the fact that these would've been authentic reactions of people who had seen this on television as well. I mean it isn't every day that you see someone actually shot and killed on TV, is it? I didn't think so.

Example 3: The next scene we're going to look at is the report that comes from Jack Ruby himself, I believe he's talking to a lawyer. The way in which this presents the "report" is different to the other two since it's not televised nor is it information known to the general public about the Kennedy Assassination. This is Jack Ruby speaking for himself and he's being purposefully quite indirect about it all, stating that if he dies then nobody will know the truth—giving away that he too, is in on the assassination. The fact that this is in black and white gives again, that noir feeling to the scene but also gives the atmosphere of the time period we are dealing with. What we've got is Jack Ruby literally begging for his life in an indirect way, but in terms of atmosphere we've got the black and white noir feeling, we've got the sense of urgency through his voice and we've got the static of the other people in the room. This static presents the "unknown" about what may happen to Jack Ruby and therefore, makes the audience watch him more carefully. It's purely psychological.

3. Use of Colour

The use of colour in various scenes is of high importance as it isn't just there to create a colour scheme—it's also there to convey information. We have the reasons of authenticity and atmosphere pretty much covered but we will be mentioning them again when required. The other aspects for use of colour including: character design, to give the scene a tone for what's happening, to add light and shadow in appropriate places and to give a sense of time.

Part 1: The Opening to the Film

Example 1: In some of the scenes during the opening of the film, we have black and white film, which is obviously there to add authenticity to the scenery. But it's also there for another reason, it's there to add to the "crime." As I've said before, it is typical for film noir to be shot in black and white and have some central "great American crime" at its heart. This film is echoing that same tone and creates the "film noir/crime" atmosphere by using those colours at the beginning. By the use of colour, it practically sets us up for witnessing a crime.

Example 2: The Zapruder film scene is shot in colour. The question is, if most of the other scenes leading up to the crime are shot in black and white, then why is mostly just the Zapruder scene shot in colour? Well, that's because the actual Zapruder film is in colour and not in black and white. This adds to the authenticity by using colour instead of black and white for this film. There have been many speculations about how the Zapruder film was edited into JFK (1991) because of some nuts who believe things like the limo actually stopped and that was edited out of the film. But here me good, if you were to take the shots of the Zapruder film from JFK (1991) and put them all together, you'd actually get the whole minutes worth of film. The fact it is in colour is because they probably used the actual Zapruder film. May I add that it is terrifying to watch.

Example 3: The cut-to-black is the best part of this opening scene. Just before the end of the Zapruder film and the beginning of the news report, we have a [CUT-TO-BLACK] technicality which adds to the intensity of the scene. One gunshot and a black screen. It is a wonderful thing to achieve properly, I wanted to really include this because of how well it works. This is the part that tells us that yes, Kennedy is going to be assassinated now. It adds to the tone of urgency and the whole film noir situation we've got going on at the moment. It's a very modern thing to do in film and looks incredible on the screen.

Part 2: Watching the Report, Scene 2:

Example: We can clearly see the use of colour in the opening to this scene since everyone seems to be wearing greys, browns and blacks like they're in mourning. This is both quite intense and also a bit weird for me to watch. They would've been dressed since that morning, so how did everyone know to wear these dark and dreary colours, unless it was high fashion at the time to wear muted-coloured suits. But this very muted-coloured scene is brilliant for the atmosphere because it adds to the way people speak. There's not a lot of noise, everyone is fairly silent and one person talks then another. There isn't a massive fight or argument. The colour really sets up this tone well.

Part 3: Guy Bannister's Files

Example: What we have here is a fight seen in Guy Bannister's office between him and a "friend." (Sorry, I don't want to give too much of the actual plot of the film away!) Anyways, the scene is covered in this greyish hue which makes the rain outside look like the colours used inside. It's all being used for pathetic fallacy and that is a fact. When Guy Bannister begins fighting with his "friend" we see this greyish hue darken slightly, it's shadowy. It's there to represent the character design of Bannister and how shady the stuff he did was.

Part 4: The Warren Report

Example: All the flashbacks you see in the film have either a black and white colour to represent criminals and crime, or they have a greyish hue to represent something shady going on. When it comes to the greyish hue, the first one we actually have is the fight scene between Guy Bannister and his "friend." This is a flashback, but this also represents the "shady" situation of Guy Bannister. We have discussed this. Now, what happens when you have the audience associating the greyish hue over the film with shadiness in flashbacks and falsified information which Guy Bannister is so well-known for? You make it easier to manipulate the film based on the colours rather than explicitly stating "this is a shady situation."

The first example we're going to look at is a scene directly influenced by this fight scene and the shadiness of Guy Bannister's character. These are the scenes with the Warren Report being written. These scenes have that greyish hue and because the audience associate that with the criminality of Guy Bannister and the shadiness of the crime flashbacks that are in black and white (or greyscale as it's called), the Warren Report writing also comes under the same header. This is association by use of colour, or as we call it—connotation. The Warren Commission now has an "association" in the film with criminality through lying to the public about the Kennedy Assassination and therefore, every scene in which we have the writers interrogating people, we will definitely see the greyish hue reappear to remind us that this isn't how it is meant to be.

Conclusions for Part 1

This film is pretty long and I didn't want to put all of my findings into just one article because then the article would be way too long for you to take any interest. In reality, I love watching and analysing this film because of its vast use of everything from cinematography, colour, timing, character, and even flashbacks to add meaning to the plot and add some authenticity to the story. I highly recommend you watch this film more than once and, if you're making a biographical or historical drama, I suggest you borrow some indirect aspects of this film to use in your own. Personally, I would definitely recommend that brilliant [CUT-TO-BLACK] technicality and the use of black and white on some flashbacks to give the noir feel.

Well, did we answer our initial question of how this film creates high drama whilst retaining its realism? Yes we did. All in all, this film creates authenticity through the medium of news reports, journalism and even written reports, commissions and the use of characters who were all once real people (most of them are now deceased). The realism is done through that sense of authenticity given to the audience, which allows the cinematography to pull off that high drama stuff of quick splicing, cuts to black, editing in the Zapruder film into the opening scene, even slow-motion for some fight scenes and these panning shots and zoom-outs which look brilliant on the screen.

I'm glad you're still sticking around after all of that; sometimes it can get a bit heavy with all of this analysis. I've tried to explain it as simply as I can though. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

Good luck on your next project!

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