To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.
The American Dream is an idea I can unpack for days and were I a memoirist or political philosopher rather than a humble film critic I would expound upon it for thousands of words, but since I am what I am I’ll offer a summary, or more accurately a reification of the idea, in the form of one man: Kevin Costner. He is not the only embodiment of the American Dream, but one iteration thereof, who at his peak defined a certain kind of highly romantic symbol, equal parts normal guy and an American flag with legs. He was both avatar of moral purity and Trojan horse wheeled inside America’s gates to bring about its destruction (and in the same year no less). He embodied the cynicism and innocence of the national pastime. And finally, he was party to the lies America tells itself to keep the dream alive. All this, within five years.
Costner’s performance as Elliott Ness in The Untouchables was an extraordinary star turn, evincing a righteousness that avoided being overbearing and a purity virtually none of his contemporaries were capable of portraying with any sincerity. It’s all the more extraordinary for the fact that one of his core guiding principles is that duty to uphold the law supersedes any moral considerations of the law’s justice. Specifically, he’s been tasked with enforcing Prohibition, one of the dumbest chapters in American history, including the current one. While the film does more than enough to establish Al Capone’s villainy as greatly exceeding the simple fact of booze being stupidly illegal, and Costner’s Ness does get his hands dirty—he straight up throws a heavily fictionalized Frank Nitti off a roof, not exactly a goody-two-shoes move—but at the end of the film, when the wide-eyed reporter who’s been following him the whole movie asks Ness what he’ll do if Prohibition is repealed, Ness’ reply is “I think I’ll have a drink.” It’s an applause line, that underlines Ness’ belief in laws, and a testament to Costner’s off-the-charts star power, that he can be so charming as, frankly, a legalistic doofus.
No Way Out presents a murkier Costner, although at the outset he appears to be a similar paragon of rectitude to Ness, here playing a Naval officer detailed to aid the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman, in a meticulously layered performance as a sleazy, cruel dumbass) in some DC intrigue. The plot thickens when SecDef Hackman kills his mistress (Sean Young), with whom Costner is also involved, with the resulting cover-up leading to Costner being (unwittingly) made the prime suspect and (ironically) accused of being a Russian spy, with a lot of running around and yelling involved. The story literally hinges on Sean Young taking one look at the male lead and thinking “I want to fuck that guy,” which makes it a good thing they cast 1987-vintage, Kevin Costner, because, damn. He spends almost the entire movie in a military uniform, which is admittedly a signifier of imperial hegemony, but keep in mind this is America, and that there’s Something About A Man In Uniform. (The above unexplained parenthetically mentioned irony is an allusion to the film’s concluding plot twist, where it’s revealed that although the Russian spy Hackman’s aide-de-camp Will Patton decided to pin the murder on was imaginary, Costner actually was a Russian spy the whole time. Some found this twist silly, I maintain that it’s brilliant: say you’re the USSR and you want to get one over on America. What better way to get under their guard than sending Kevin Costner in Navy dress whites? The entire country is going to get so horny that all you have to do is send in, like, one regiment and capitalism will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Brilliantly, and classically, simple.)
Costner’s baseball duology, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams (For The Love of the Game and The Upside of Anger are separate volumes) is his most on-the-nose essaying of the American Dream, as there is nothing more American, or more powerfully illusory, than baseball. Baseball’s origins, like America, lie outside of America. It lies about its origins, like America; its museum to itself is stage-managed so that it’s impossible to approach without spending hours driving through the beautiful countryside, the journey lulling pilgrims with falsehoods. Those falsehoods have beauty, though, and the poetry they’ve birthed inspire belief. Costner essays two very different true believers in these films: in Bull Durham, he wears an affected worldliness like his catcher’s pads, minor league lifer Crash Davis having a pure and beautiful love for baseball, even when it breaks his heart, and every time it breaks his heart he comes back for more, as in baseball, as in love. Field of Dreams’ Ray Kinsella is a return to dorky Costner, an aging Boomer who hears A Voice and builds a baseball field on his farm, despite a lifetime of lying to himself about being indifferent to baseball, and finds that it allows the dead to return and play once more, heaven in Iowa. Both films enjoy an uninhibited lyricism in their tributes to baseball, with Bull Durham’s more literarily allusive and Field of Dreams’ more straightforwardly declared, although neither lacks in poeticism or directness. Between these two movies and Costner at their axis, this paragraph should be a book. Costner peaked as an actor here: the emotional range on display is astonishing, and belies the flatness of his speaking voice, a greatly misleading red herring; his physical control of his body is absolute and his timing perfect.
A more dissonant matched pair follows, that of Dances With Wolves and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (Revenge exists, but not in this story.) One of the greatest and most damaging fallacies of the American mythos is the belief that if one is good at one thing, one is good at everything. A man stands alone, and once touched with greatness is a permanent member in the VIP lounge of Valhalla, individual, perfect. Both these movies isolate Costner at their center and exalt him: he has spent the past several years building an imposing resume as a movie star, thus he is a Great Star, thus he can do anything, in this case direct, and then play a British guy. The former worked out better than the latter, as Dances With Wolves has a maximalist grandeur that carries it through some of the slow spots, while Robin Hood’s ability to entertain outside a finite cultural moment collapsed irretrievably some years ago (the accent thing is, as above, a red herring. Kevin Costner doesn’t speak British, he speaks Kevin Costner. That is what it is. The movie itself is an interminable, glacial, field-sutured exercise in not giving a fuck with the sole oasis being Alan Rickman because everything Alan Rickman touched, in thespian terms, turned to gold. Goddamn it I miss him. End digression). What Dances With Wolves butts up against is the elephantine delusion that whiteness doesn’t matter, and that the American Dream is not inextricable from whiteness or maleness. John Dunbar’s evolution from suicidal Civil War soldier to an accidental ambassador to the Sioux to full and respected member of the tribe has the sweeping dramatic arc of mythology, and it also has the bullshit. It’s an affecting dramatic epic about connecting across chasms of culture and a self-absolution of the sins of history. That it’s both things at once, in equal balance, is one of the most American things of all. This is a country of limitless possibilities, and of unforgivable sins against humanity, Native American genocide and slavery being the worst but not the only.
This particular narrative covering the most storied chapter of Kevin Costner’s career comes to a close with JFK, a narrative of one of the watershed moments in the loss of American innocence. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was a seismic event, so much so that it became, even more than Pearl Harbor or 9/11, a memory tied to a specific, vividly recalled moment to nearly everyone of a self-aware age. “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” would invariably elicit a response with details that would be the envy of writers everywhere. There was something about the significance of the event, and its ripples through the next decades’ history—everything from Beatlemania to the modern conservative movement began immediately afterward—that made simple explanations of the assassination impossible to reconcile. Oliver Stone is not the only person to weave a tapestry of conspiracy, but the boldness of both his hypothesis and the filmmaking employed to explore it have made his version the most famous, likely in perpetuity. The thing that makes the whole ship afloat is Stone’s perfect choice of Kevin Costner, not only as an actor but as a symbol, to lead. Costner’s Jim Garrison is a reluctant tragic hero, a noble seeker of the truth above all else, a candle in the dark for justice, the avatar of the American way. The resemblance to the real Garrison was coincidental, if existent at all, the important thing with this particular film, is the symbol on its poster. It’s Kevin Costner looking serious, and it’s an American flag. Which are two ways of saying the same thing?