Friday, March 9, 2012

Breaking the Costner Rule

Films: JFK; The Untouchables
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (JFK) and personal collection (The Untouchables) on kick-ass portable DVD player.

So what’s the Costner rule? Simple. Kevin Costner films that are Westerns (Dances With Wolves, Silverado) or sports movies (Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Tin Cup) are good. Other Costner films (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Postman, Waterworld), not so much. Today’s films break the mold—Costner doing something other than swinging a bat or riding a horse (kind of), but still producing a vastly entertaining piece of cinema.

Few events in American history have had the sort of lasting impact and caused more controversy than the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was inevitable that Oliver Stone would eventually give us his take on the assassination. That take is JFK, in many ways the definitive artistic statement on Kennedy’s death and the several years afterward. JFK details the only time in American history that charges were brought to trial in the Kennedy case.

But before discussing this film, I need to include a bit of disclaimer. A number of years ago, I worked as a freelance copy editor. I was subcontracted to do the final copy edit and proofread for a book on the Kennedy assassination that came out under the imprint of the Library of Congress. The intent of the book was to give a (sorry to use this phrase) fair and balanced look at all of the evidence on every side. It was a glossary of sorts, an encyclopedia of the assassination. And I read every last entry multiple times. Because of this, because I saw both biased and unbiased information, opinion, and detailed facts on the assassination, I have a fairly informed (I think) opinion.

Essentially, I think Oswald acted alone. However, Oswald had connections to the Soviet Union, the marines, the CIA, communists, the mob, and people on both sides of Cuba. And when it turned out that Oswald was the guy, all of those groups with connections to him panicked and started covering up their involvement with him. So the cover up and conspiracies happened after the fact from what I see. Anyway…

Knowing that, it’s very much my opinion that Stone’s film is filled with vague notions, innuendo, half truths, and whole cloth. So rather than look at the film in terms of historical accuracy or its reflection on reality, it makes more sense to judge it as a film. Even this isn’t that easy to do. Stone’s film is necessarily long for the sole reason that a great deal of the film is exposition, repeated exposition, and new exposition and versions of the truth.

What this means is that in many ways, JFK plays like a pseudo-documentary. Standing at the center is not Kennedy, but Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the District Attorney of New Orleans. Several years after the assassination of Kennedy, Garrison begins to see a connection between some local people in New Orleans and everything that happened in Dallas. Using this as a starting point, Garrison begins to investigate and discovers an unending web of deceit, betrayal, and deeper and deeper intrigues. Watching the film, it is difficult not to consider the truth of Stone’s vision.

JFK is blessed with one of the deepest casts around. In addition to Costner, the film features Sissy Spacek, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Vincent D’Onofrio, Gary Oldman, Brian Doyle Murray, Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight, Laurie Metcalf, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Walter Matthau, John Candy, and Donald Sutherland. Seriously, wow. In fact, the actual Jim Garrison shows up in the film as Earl Warren.

Throughout, Garrison is painted as an underdog and the victim of the same sort of conspiracy that he claims killed Kennedy. It’s an interesting idea when a District Attorney is viewed as the heroic loner working against the system.

Stone’s style is interesting here. He goes on long tangents that in any other film would kill the narrative, but here becomes something that spirals the audience in deeper. The scene with Mr. X (Sutherland), for instance, is nothing more than an extended piece of conspiratorial background and fancy. The closing courtroom speech seems eternal; it goes on and on, but is a masterstroke of scripting in that it never gets dull. It builds and builds, creating a case that is both compelling and built on a foundation of sand and conjecture.

What it also is, though, is proof that Costner can do more than sports films and Westerns. Hell of a film, even if it is all conjecture, conspiracy theory, and Stone’s paranoia.

Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is a similar film in many ways. Both films essentially deal with a small group fighting against long odds and people who want them dead, and, of course, both feature Kevin Costner in the role of main fly in the ointment. The Untouchables is a hyper-violent, completely non-historical and totally Hollywood-ized version of Eliot Ness and his band of treasury men going after Al Capone in 1920s Chicago.

Ness’s team was called “untouchable” because they couldn’t be bribed. This, of course, was in a time when anyone in Chicago could be bought and anything could be had for the right price. Ness’s job was to find a way to take down Al Capone. Ness, of course is played here by Kevin Costner, and his rival, Al “Scarface” Capone, is none other than Robert De Niro.

Capone’s first foray into the life of trying to bust bad guys doesn’t go over well, but it does help him assemble a team for himself. He gets Agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) from the FBI. Wallace isn’t a field agent, but an accountant, and it is he who first puts the idea of getting Capone for tax evasion into Ness’s head. He also recruits long-time beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), who has the knowledge and street smarts to be a real asset. Rounding out the team is George Stone (Andy Garcia), a dead shot with a pistol.

And so the team immediately starts trying to mess with Capone’s business, and they do so with various success. They score a major coup when Capone attempts to bring in a shipment from Canada. This also gives us a good look at the men who make up The Untouchables. Stone and Ness are relatively cool under fire. Wallace, though, has never been shot at before. When Stone takes a round, Wallace becomes mildly unhinged. But the true moment belongs to Jim Malone. With one of Capone’s bookkeepers captured, Malone threatens him. Then, to get him to talk, he puts his gun in the mouth of an already dead Capone soldier and pulls the trigger. It’s a moment of pure, brutal genius.

Naturally, Capone fights back, knocking off two of Ness’s men, both in brutal and painful ways. By this time, though Ness has agreed that tax evasion, while not very sexy, is a way that Capone can be had. And Capone knows it, too. This means that Capone is moving his accountant out of town, leaving Ness and Stone to capture the guy in a train station. While the train station scene is not the end of the film, it is in many ways the most key scene. De Palma took this scene in no small part from Eisenstein’s Brononosets Potyomkin, and the influence is evident. It is one of the great scenes of its decade. Ness and Stone draw weapons on the accountant’s bodyguard, who draws a weapon as well. And as gunplay goes off in slow motion, a baby carriage tetters through the melee down a set of marble steps. It is nearly damn perfect, and made all the better by being almost entirely in slow motion.

Of course, that isn’t the actual end, which happens in court with Capone, and which ends in something cinematically awesome but completely illegal. But so what, right? It’s a movie.

I would be remiss without bringing up a couple more characters. The first is Ness’s wife, Catherine (Patricia Clarkson). She’s not in the film much, but she brings a nice bit of warmth to the film that is otherwise almost nothing but violence. The second is Billy Drago, who plays Capone’s go-to hitman, Frank Nitti. Drago is blessed or cursed with a face that gives him a feral look that makes him perfect to play villains. And that’s exactly what he does here—there’s nothing nice or pleasant about Frank Nitti.

The Untouchables is hardly historically accurate, but it also doesn’t pretend to be. What it is is almost pure action, and it’s damn good at being that. It had been a long time since I had watched The Untouchables, and I had forgotten just how good it really is. It’s worth a watch. Really.

Why to watch JFK: Oliver Stone at his conspiratorial best.
Why not to watch: As compelling as it might be, it’s mostly hokum.

Why to watch The Untouchables: This is what we like to think the Roaring ‘20s were like.
Why not to watch: The reality almost certainly wasn’t this cool.


  1. I thought Costner was far stronger in "JFK." In the "Untouchables," he felt more like the weakest link among superior actors. (Which reminds me: have you seen the video of Andy Garcia choking up at the end of his tribute to Sean Connery? It's a corny but touching moment as Garcia pretends to read Connery a letter written by Connery's "greatest admirer"; of course, the letter's author turns out to be none other than Garcia himself.)

    As for this:

    "...which ends in something cinematically awesome but completely illegal. But so what, right? It’s a movie."

    True enough, but at least it was consistent with the dramatic point being made by Malone throughout the film: "What're you prepared to do?" It puts an ironic twist on Ness's character arc: despite being incorruptible for most of the film, Ness finally dips a toe into the darkness that's a requisite for fighting Capone's sort of crime.

  2. Actually, the awesome/illegal crack isn't so much about the fate of Frank Nitti, although that is quite awesome and quite illegal, too. I was referring specifically to what happens to the jury in the trial.

    Costner actually acts in JFK and it could easily be argued that in The Untouchables he does not act, or he acts more like Kevin Costner in a role rather than the role. Regardless, I like The Untouchables better. It's just so much damn fun.

  3. I felt JFK was the better of the two movies, although it could have used some editing. I do agree that Stone seemed to throw every single conspiracy theory into the mix at some point and they seemed like overkill.

    For what it's worth: I don't believe that Oswald acted alone. Not because of anything Stone showed in the film, or because of any conspiracy theories I have about Cubans, Soviets, CIA, Lyndon Johnson, etc., but simply because I don't believe one bullet could have made all the injuries in Kennedy's neck and Connolly's shoulder, wrist, and leg, given their relative seated positions and Oswald's shooting position.

  4. I think JFK is the more important movie, Stone's conspiracy wonking or not. But The Untouchables is the film I'd rather watch more often than not. It's a fun watch, the sort of movie that's great to watch with a big bowl of popcorn and a giant soda.

  5. These are two of the only Costner movies I like, as well. (His westerns are okay, I'm not not much into sports movies in any way, so I can't really judge.)

    My real question, since you didn't mention it - where do you fall on Thirteen Days, as a non-Western, non-sports Costner film?

  6. Sadly, I haven't seen it.

    My favorite Costner movie ever is still Bull Durham. I'm also not much of a sports fan, but that movie is really special.