JFK, Kevin Costner's incredibly popular conspiracy thriller movie, is streaming on HBO Max.
Kevin Costner dominated the box office of the last two decades of the 20th century like few actors before him, starring in one huge blockbuster after another, often anchored by his image as the most trustworthy, salt-of-the-Earth man ever. One of the Yellowstone star’s single biggest movies of the time period expertly weaponized the inherent trust the American public has in Costner to produce JFK, Oliver Stone’s wildly popular 1991 conspiracy theory thriller. JFK is currently streaming on HBO Max and remains as bizarre and overheated now as it was 30 years ago.
JFK stars Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, a real-life New Orleans district attorney who becomes convinced that the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was the result of a conspiracy rather than the work of a single crazed gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). It is fair to say that social media has made it easier than ever for conspiracy theories to spread and metastasize among the populace, but in both the real-life release date of the film and the fictionalized 1967 of Kevin Costner’s investigation within it, the idea of a successful conspiracy to kill the president was a shocking thing.
As with many Oliver Stone films, JFK is enormously long, with the theatrical cut clocking in at over three hours; nowadays, only movies about the further adventures of Ant-Man usually get that kind of treatment, but in 1991, it took one of the most significant political effects of the 20th century. However, while JFK might be a very long film, it is impossible to say that it is boring, which is pretty impressive.
JFK opens with a clip of President Dwight D. Eisenhower giving his famous farewell address warning of the dangers of the military-industrial complex’s effect on American society, and things do not get more subtle from there. Legendary actor Martin Sheen recites the factual elements of what occurred in Dallas on November, 1963, followed by the subsequent assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald himself by Jack Ruby. And then it gets into Kevin Costner’s increasingly obsessive quest to prove that (as the movie eventually claims) the CIA, United States military, the Mafia, the FBI, a cabal of flamboyant gay men in Louisiana, Cuban refugees, and Kennedy’s own Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson were all involved in the assassination.
The movie is full of a lot of wildly, frequently disproven (more on that in a moment) theories and Oliver Stone does not give viewers a chance to catch their breath. When this information is being relayed to you by a dizzying array of stars like a fascist gay prostitute (Kevin Bacon), a jive-talking hipster lawyer (John Candy in a rare dramatic role), Joe Pesci with the wildest eyebrows imaginable, a mysterious figure known as Mr. X (Donald Sutherland, bringing the gravitas), it feels all the more significant and bizarre.
Fortunately, his secret weapon, Kevin Costner, acts as a centering force in the movie, with his saint-like fortitude and Superman-like quest for truth and justice making even Tommy Lee Jones’ insane wig seem remotely real. That said, Kevin Costner’s New Orleans drawl might be the most unbelievable part of the movie, and that’s saying something.
In its own way, JFK is arguably the single piece of culture that has promoted the idea that a conspiracy was behind the assassination, which nearly two-thirds of Americans believe. While speculation about the death of JFK pretty much started immediately (prompting the creation of the controversial Warren Commission), an enormously popular film starring America’s dad pushed it so far into the mainstream that Seinfeld could anchor an entire episode around Kevin Costner’s lengthy climactic courtroom speech.
Most of the theories promoted in JFK were already heavily disputed and/or disproven by the time of the release of the movie, but it was never the intention of the film to definitely solve the case. Instead, Oliver Stone and his co-writer Zachary Sklar adapted books by the real Jim Garrison and author Jim Marrs, then added a whole bunch more stuff, eventually creating what the director called a “counter-myth” to the official investigation. It is not exactly fair to say Stone was trolling, but it is difficult to know exactly what the intended end result was other than to further muddy up the waters.
However, that didn’t stop audiences. Despite being over three hours long, JFK raked in a whopping $200 million and basically established many of the tropes and beliefs that are common about the assassination now. In his prime, Kevin Costner was just that powerful of a force at the box office.