On DVD: JFK - Ultimate Collector's Edition

One imagines that DVD marketers spend a good, long time thinking about what discs need to be released, and which older films have a big enough audience to justify putting together a massive "Super-Special Get Out Your Wallet Edition" with all sorts of extra features and inserts.

At least, I like to think that there's a lot of thought involved. But sometimes something hits the shelves -- like, say, the new Ultimate Collector's Edition of JFK -- that makes me wonder who, exactly, is the intended audience.

The set from Warner Bros. is a bulky box the size of a student's dictionary. It includes the 206-minute feature and all the same extras that were included on the 2003 two-disc "Special Edition" (making it not-so-special now, I guess), including the original commentary track with Oliver Stone, and members of the cast and crew and the 90-minute Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy featurette, and deleted scenes.

But, oh, there's more. A third disc offers The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings (135 min.), a new documentary that looks at the history of the American dynasty, with a solid emphasis on Jack and not a lot of focus on the less positive aspects of the family. And then there are production photos, pictures of JFK, and reproductions of letters that he wrote and received. So if you've ever wanted the experience of holding a flimsy piece of paper printed to look like a postcard that John F. Kennedy once sent to his mom, you should be in hog heaven here. There's even a collectible pin tucked into the documentary's keep-case.

As for the movie itself, it holds up well. Better than well, really, but perhaps not in the way one would expect. Admittedly, it's not a reliable narrative. Oliver Stone's reputation as a crazed conspiracy theorist was built on JFK, and there are perfectly valid reasons to criticize the film purely on Stone's loose hand with facts, as well as his creation of composite characters for dramatic efficiency. As a historical document, and as a factual, investigative work on the reasons behind the Kennedy assassination, JFK fails utterly.

But Stone didn't make a documentary. He made a dramatic, big-budget, Hollywood-financed feature film. JFK is long, it's talky, and it stars Kevin Costner in one of the least convincing roles of his career, which is really saying something. And, for all that, it's a consistently engaging, even entertaining, work that achieves Stone's goal -- to make the audience ask questions, and to stir up enough controversy so that people would talk about the shady manner in which the government has handled information about the assassination.

Stone's intent is made clear in one startling moment as obsessed District Attorney Jim Garrison (Costner) speaks to the jury during the trial of accused conspirator Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). "Show this world that this is still a government of the people, for the people and by the people,'" he says to them. "Nothing as long as you live will ever be more important -- it's up to you." And then he looks directly into the camera, challenging the viewer to do more than sit passively in a movie theater. It's a little jarring, quite powerful, and full of Stone's ego. And it works.

One very good reason why JFK has aged so well is that, in the 17 years since its release, Stone's muscular, fast-paced, directing style has been embraced as the Hollywood norm. In his New York Times review of the film's theatrical release, Vincent Canby described Stone's direction as "making hysterical scenes tumbling one after another, backed by a soundtrack that is layered, strudel-like, with noises, dialogue, music, more noises, more dialogue." Indeed, John Williams' score is predictably heavy-handed, but his use of an insistent rat-a-tat snare drum to simultaneously denote presidential gravitas and create tension is wickedly effective (and seems to have been baldly stolen by W.G. Snuffy Walden for The West Wing theme some eight years later). Viewed today, however, Stone's directorial style hardly seems any more rushed than your average cineplex release, and his use of layered dialogue-on-dialogue-on-music can be found on most nighttime television dramas.

One thing that can be said for the marketing minds behind the JFK: Ultimate Collector's Edition set is that their timing is excellent, with Stone's W. limping out of theaters and the DVD's November 2008 release arriving just a few weeks before the 45th anniversary of the event in question. And, thankfully, Warner Bros. didn't get greedy: The set retails for $39.98, which seems reasonable for the amount of extras included. Although I still wonder how many rabid JFK fans are out there, who either don't already own the special-edition DVD or are willing to pull out their credit cards just to get a documentary (which can be purchased separately) and some replicas of postcards.


Dawn Taylor can sum up her love for JFK in four words: gay Tommy Lee Jones.