I. Plot Synopsis

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Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

(more…)

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”–Polonius. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2.

In an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump once again complained about the Saturday Night Live sketches mocking him:

“It’s a failing show, it’s not funny. Alec Baldwin’s a disaster, he’s terrible on the show and, by the way, I don’t mind some humor but it’s terrible.”

People have again expressed amazement at how thin-skinned the guy is.  And he is, but there’s actually a bit more going on here besides that.

SNL isn’t exactly the only shop in the Trump-mocking business. Making fun of the President isn’t a niche or novel concept, and Trump is currently very unpopular. Lots of comics and satirists are mocking him. MAD magazine mocks the hell out of him, and I’ve yet to hear him complain about it.

If Trump were just hellbent on responding to everyone who mocks him, he’d never do anything else. No, he singles out SNL.

Why?

I have a theory: NBC, which broadcasts SNL,  is also the network that aired Trump’s show The Apprentice. I suspect Trump has some feud with the upper management at NBC, and so is fighting a proxy war against them by attacking one of their shows.

Another frequent target of Trump’s wrath is CNN, which he repeatedly attacks as “dishonest” or lately, “fake news”. But CNN isn’t the only news organization to report negative stories about him–CBS does that too, as does ABC.  And PBS does too. (Yes, I know he plans to shut that down, but that’s a standard Republican wish-list item. I don’t recall him tweeting about it.)

It makes more sense once you know that the President of CNN is one Jeff Zucker, who had been President of NBC until a few years ago.  In fact, Zucker originally signed Trump for The Apprentice. I don’t know all the details, but it seems likely that Trump had some sort of falling out with him.  I hear Trump can be temperamental, believe it or not.

My point is, Trump isn’t just randomly lashing out at any group that insults him.  Rather, he is deliberately lashing out at specific organizations tied to people whom he most likely personally dislikes.

Read Richard Branson’s account of meeting Trump–it indicates that Trump has personal animosity towards specific individuals. Most of the people Trump personally knows, whether as friends or enemies, are wealthy men like himself. So I’m guessing that when he starts attacking something, it’s usually because it’s owned or managed by some personal foe of his.

They’d been advertising this movie “The Interview” constantly during the football games–otherwise I’d never have heard of it.  But now that Sony caved to pressure from threats of hacker attacks, it’s going to get a lot more publicity.  Personally, I wasn’t planning to see it before, and even if they do figure out some way to release it, I won’t see it then. I don’t go see many movies.

My first question on hearing about this was: since when does North Korea have hackers? I honestly didn’t realize they did cyber-warfare–I thought they spent all their money on bombs.

My second question was: why are they all upset about this, and not about that one movie with the marionettes that came out about ten years ago mocking Kim Jong-il?  Is it just because this is live action?

And now even the President has said Sony made a mistake, saying “I wish they (Sony) had spoken to me first”–and I guess he is in a better position than anyone to assess the level of the threat. Still, even that in itself smacks of censorship in a way–are all movies now going to have be run by the government to see if they pose a security risk every time hackers threaten them?

All in all, I think this is kind of a bad omen–it’s just going to embolden every hacker to threaten every movie to see if he can get it banned.  The trolls are running the show now.  That said, I was getting sick of seeing the ads for the movie, so I guess I can’t complain that they’ve been pulled.

CBS News reports:

New York state lawmakers have proposed a ban on anonymous online comments. Called the “Internet Protection Act” (A.8688/S.6779), the legislation would require a web site administrator to pull down anonymous comments from sites, including ‘social networks, blogs forums, message boards or any other discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages.’

The reason for this is to prevent cyber-bullying. A laudable goal, no doubt.

Now, it might occur to people who use the internet, and especially people who have blogs, that the above plan is bothentirely feasible and utterly senseless. If a web administrator is looking at the comment, s/he knows the contents of the comment. If you must make a law, wouldn’t it be more intelligent to require them to pull down comments–anonymous and otherwise–that are insulting or cruel? Why make them waste their time on anonymous comments that are perfectly civil?

It sounds to me like the people who wrote this legislation may not be aware of the concept of “comment moderation”.  It would be nice if the people making laws about it were  familiar with how commenting on the internet actually works.

(Hat Tip to Immoral Minority.)

Well, well, in a matter of hours anyone reading my past posts will be quite confused. Most of them cite Wikipedia often, and Wikipedia is going to be blacked out to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act.

I quite agree with their opposition to this legislation. I do hope their protest is effective. This line in a BBC article on the matter was all it took to persuade me:

“The anti-piracy legislation still has high profile supporters including News Corporation’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch.”

Then you may rely on my thorough and unrelenting opposition!

However, I am not sure that this is the best means of protesting the issue. I mean, they’re effectively removing information from the internet to protest the removal of information from the internet. This isn’t nearly as stupid as it sounds. Sometimes, hunger strikes actually succeed, despite the obvious tactical flaw.

Still, I’m not sure why it would work. It seems like it’s just a symbolic thing, and just symbolic things don’t always work. I guess it is plausible that everyone in the Congress relies on staffers to bring them information they gleaned from Wikipedia, and that without Wikipedia, the members of that august body would be operating in the dark. But that doesn’t seem to stop them.

No, I think there must be a better way. But I haven’t thought of it yet, so why bother listening to me complain and fail to accomplish anything? I just think of the quote about “Politician’s Logic” from the British comedy, Yes, Minister:

“We must do something.
This is something.
Therefore we must do it.” 
This is probably the thought process that has led politicians to creating bad anti-piracy legislation to begin with. I just don’t want it to be the one that underlies the opposition as well. 
(Hat Tip to Thingy)

Peter Cook once said that his nightclub “The Establishment Club” was inspired by “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.”

I am reminded of this quote by the recent “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day“, in which, as a response to fanatical Islamic extremists threatening violence over an episode of the show “South Park” that (sort of) depicted Mohammed, people are to, well, draw him.

I suppose I approve of the activity, since I am firmly of the opinion that absolutely no good can come from religious extremism. And yet I can’t help but feel the whole exercise is… pointless. I mean, did it really win anything for us? Did it change any minds, or, much more importantly, make us in any way safer from further attacks by radical Islamic terrorists?

The problem here is a problem I see not only in satire, but in protest marches, in protest songs, and even in everyday discourse, where passively insulting something or someone acts as a substitute for actively fighting against it.

Put plainly, I worry that this will make us complacent. It’s all well and good to draw Mohammed, if it makes you feel better about things, but let us not think for one moment that we have taken any actual effective action towards combating this violent extremism.

This video has been getting a lot of attention today. Since I’ve been discussing the reasons for the Tea Party a lot lately, I thought I’d address it.

Much is made of the fact that the Tea Party members shown here are apparently unaware of the fact that their taxes are at present slightly lower.

Well, the obvious response must first point out that if anybody at this event did give a reasonable discourse on, for example, Ricardian Equivalence, it wouldn’t make this video, because of its makers’ stated agenda. Secondly, it must be pointed out he interviewed so few people that it’s hard to call it a significant sample. Lastly, most people become flustered when asked to speak on camera, and tend to babble a little. So, the bias of the piece makes it rather difficult to have any faith that we are getting a real representation of the Tea Party.

That isn’t to say that the video is worthless–the search for completely unbiased reporting is in any case, I think, quixotic. The bits that document the rehearsed performances and speeches are pretty effective in showing them to be rather silly. (As are similar things at Left-wing rallies, I’ll bet.) I found Lord Monckton’s little rallying cry about Fox News anchors to be fairly Orwellian.

Overall, I’d say it’s a useful piece of footage to some extent, but by no means should people go judging the Tea Party by it.