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…

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There’s a lot to hate about social media.  From idiot trolls to widespread fake news stories, there’s some reason to believe social media is responsible for many of the problems in the world today. In fact, I’d say social media is a net negative for humanity.

(This is pretty ironic, because I used to be in charge of social media for my employer.  And also I’m writing this blog, and I’m going to tweet the link after I’m done.)

But social media does sometimes have benefits.  The other day I was doing what most millennials do with Twitter: used it to look for some good Gilbert and Sullivan information.  Quite by chance, I came across Dr. Alison Vincent’s Twitter account.

Dr. Vincent is the CTO for Cisco UK and Ireland, and an all-around cool person. Her C.V. is very impressive, but the reason I recognized her was from some very enjoyable performances of Gilbert and Sullivan by the Southampton Operatic Society that I had seen many years ago.

I tweeted my thanks to her for the performances, and she very kindly replied.  Then, the Southampton Operatic Society replied as well, with the above clip of one of their performances. Then another one of the performers, Mr. Mike Pavitt, also kindly responded. It was a thoroughly nice exchange all around.

I’d seen those performances about eight years ago on Youtube, but it had never occurred to me in all that time to thank the people involved.  Without social media, I never would have been able to do so.

This hashtag started trending on Twitter after Hillary Clinton’s speech about the Alt-Right movement.  As some readers may remember, I’ve had lively debates with some Alt-Right writers in the past, so I was interested to see that the existence of this ideology is seemingly news to many people.

I started thinking about how I’d concisely describe the Alt-Right.  The best I could come up with was “unabashed nationalism”, but that seems inadequate.

After thinking about it a bit more, I settled on this definition:

The Traditional Right got outraged about movies that they believed blasphemed against the Bible, like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Life of Brian.  The Alternative Right gets outraged about a movie that they believe blasphemed against Ghostbusters.

It’s a rather awkward definition, but very revealing, in my opinion.

 

Some Republicans have been throwing around the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.  This is the amendment that allows for the direct election of Senators, instead of having them appointed by State legislatures. It was passed in 1913, after decades of groups like the Populist party arguing for it.

The Republican version of American history does seem to really hinge on the year 1913.  that was the year that the power of the Federal government began to increase. In addition to the direct election of Senators, it was the year the 16th Amendment–the income tax–was passed. (This was also something the Populists had wanted.) It also was when the Federal Reserve was created, thus paving the way for  many a libertarian conspiracy theory.

I’m assuming this why the Republicans want to do this–it’s a first step towards repealing the so-called “Progressive Era”.  I think the real point they’re driving at is the repeal of the income tax, as part of a “Starve the Beast” strategy.

That said, I do actually see some reason for opposing the direct election of Senators. I don’t endorse it, but I can see some logic to it.  The Senate was supposed to be a less polarized place than the House of Representatives–the idea being the Senators could compromise with each other more than the elected Representatives in the House. Probably having the members be appointed rather than elected might decrease the amount of fighting among Senators.

This might be a good step towards reducing the gridlock in Washington, especially since the current trend is the Senate becoming more like the House, and ending up just as deadlocked.

Then again, there’s no reason to assume giving control of appointing senators back to the State Legislatures would help anything.  Whichever Party controls the legislature will just appoint their favorite cronies, and we’ll end up in the same predicament.

In addition, I don’t know how you would ever get people to vote for someone advocating this.  It essentially boils down to saying “I think you people vote for lousy candidates, and so am going to take away your ability to do so. Vote for me!”

I suppose the legislatures could call for a Constitutional convention and try to get it changed that way, though who knows what else they might end up changing in the process.  (This is another scheme the Republicans have been toying with for some time.)

There’s been a lot of talk this week about how horribly wrong the conservative press got their election predictions, picking Romney  to win in a landslide despite no polls supporting this idea.  They have been roundly criticized for attacking Nate Silver, who had the idea to go look at the polls and predict how people would vote based on them.  (Personally, I think my method is even better: I predicted who would win just by looking at the candidates.  But that’s an aside.)

The conservative press–Fox News, Limbaugh, and that crowd–are, of course, a bunch of liars.  I have no doubt about it, and I didn’t even before this election.  It’s so obvious as to be hardly worth dwelling on. So I won’t.  No, what I want to talk about is the non-Fox mainstream news media’s coverage of the election, especially election night itself.  It was not quite as bad as Fox, but it wasn’t good. It covered everything as a neck-and-neck horse race, and really only reported states as they came in.  (I will admit up front that I did not watch all of it; I went to bed at 10:00 pm Eastern Time, with total confidence of Obama’s victory.)

 
On my PBS station, I get something called “BBC World News America“.  As you may have guessed, it’s BBC news for Americans.  The difference between this and the regular American news is very striking.  On election night, the BBC did a good job pointing out that if you counted in the electoral votes of the solidly Democratic and Republican states, the President had a sizeable advantage.  Romney was, in short, playing with a handicap.  He was trailing before the competition actually started.

On all the other networks, all they really talk about is the “swing states”. Obviously, these are the most important, but to watch the coverage you would think that the whole affair rested entirely on who won these states.  They didn’t seem to focus so much on the fact that Obama had more margin for error.  It was just a “ooooo, who will win the next state?” sort of show, like a “reality” show of sorts.

Then there were people like David Gregory, who seemed to think he was covering a football game.  He kept talking about Obama’s “defense” and Romney’s “offense”.  That means nothing.  It’s not really that kind of competition.  People vote for and against candidates for lots of reasons.  I mean, the weather can determine the outcome of elections.

All in all, the television political press is pretty lousy, in my opinion.  Fox News is just a Republican P.R. office and the rest of them just like a close race so they can have something exciting to talk about.

Kamilla Berdin mentioned a study by Gerbner on how TV News impacts how people view the world.  Well, I wanted to find out about that, so I searched, and couldn’t find the actual study, but did find the articles on “Mean World Syndrome” and “Cultivation Theory“.  MWS is George Gerbner‘s idea that people who watch television a lot view the world as more hostile than it is.

I can believe it.  I occasionally watch my local news, and the two main takeaways are:

  • There are people all over the place committing heinous crimes
  • Sports.

Crime and sports seem to be the big-ticket items on local news.  The National news, on the other hand, is focused mostly on politics, health issues and foreign relations.  The major points here are:

  • Republicans and Democrats hate one another.
  • There are many diseases and/or foods that will kill you.
  • People in other countries hate one another and, usually, us.

I have been taught from a young age to view everything with a critical eye, so I like to believe that I’m capable of realizing this isn’t an accurate picture of the whole world; just the serious bits of it.  But still, if you had a steady diet of this, you’d think we were living in the world of A Clockwork Orange.  How telling is it that the least angry and life-threatening stories in all are about sport, which is basically a proxy for war?

That’s just the news, which is supposedly what the really well-informed people watch.  Then there are tons of both real and fictional cop shows where people commit bizarre and horrible crimes, just to really drive home the point.  And that’s just the over-the-air television.  I don’t get cable, but I don’t get the impression most of the programming on there is geared more towards thoughtful, civilized thinkers.  I could be wrong.

I remember there was an early “Dilbert” comic where Dogbert starts a “Good News” news network. Ironically, I think this is pretty much what segments like the “Making a Difference” bit on NBC News  are trying to do.  But they come at the end, after we have already been visited by the crime-ridden hellscape that the news presents.

People always ask: “why don’t they report good news”?  Well, there are a few reasons:

  1. It’s almost never urgent  I don’t need to hear about the people who had a nice day,  I need to hear if a gang war is breaking out.
  2. It’s boring.  A part of us is entranced by lurid and violent stuff.
  3. When you factor in the first two reasons, what do you think gets more viewership?

Finally: sometimes, good news does get reported.  The end of wars, for example, tends to get lots of attention, though you could argue that’s not good news, merely the cessation of bad news.

But what about the effect TV has on people?  Does it do what it did to Faye Dunaway’s character in Network?  (Yes, I am aware of the irony in using an analogy from a movie to talk about this.)   But how could you avoid concluding from TV that the world is a horrible place you should minimize contact with? It seems to me that the only options are (a) assume most of what they say on TV is a lie, which is dangerous because you might become a 9/11 truther or something if you do that, OR (b) not watch it, and run the risk of not being “up” on current events.

Lastly, of course, there is the internet; which should allow you to customize your news.  The only problem with that is TV news problem 2, above, which leads us back to where we started.

David Wong, writing in Cracked, lists “5 ways to spot a B.S. Political Story”. He highlights certain words that appear in political headlines, and what they often signify. It would be easy to blame this on lazy journalists; however, it’s really very easy to find yourself repeating the same phrases that are familiar to you. And it’s a huge hindrance to writing about politics. George Orwell famously advised in his essay Politics and the English Language:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Great advice, and so naturally very difficult to heed. I’ve probably fallen back on time-worn phrases countless times in writing this blog. As people acquire language largely through imitation, it’s only natural that we fall easily into imitation when using it.

Wong also laments how stories often couch everything purely in terms of political points scored. He writes of the headline “Slowdown in U.S. jobs growth deals a blow to Obama.”:

How about the millions of people who are out of work? Hey, guys, I don’t know if you realize this, but the world actually exists. Those numbers on the screen represent actual humans who are actually suffering. No, really! It’s not a video game!

The reason the press has to couch everything in this manner is simple: otherwise, they get called for political bias. Wong talks about stories that treat, for example, the healthcare law as merely a political “horse-race” issue, but the poor writers have only two other options:

  1. Write headlines like “Supreme Court to render millions uninsured”–a headline which would cause all the Republicans to gripe even more than usual about “liberal bias”, and whine that this was “value-laden language”.
  2. Capitulate to the Republicans entirely and write headlines like “Supreme Court to free millions from yoke of socialism”.

The first thing will never happen, because hell hath no fury like a Republican who is mad at the press. The second thing is out at every news source that has some interest in the truth. So, all that’s left is the horse-race approach. After all, no one can complain that it’s biased.

There’s a new documentary out called “Miss Representation“, about how women are portrayed in “the media”. I was reading about it in this Daily Beast article, which quotes the film’s director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom saying that through “the media”:

“‘We are teaching young women that their worth lies in their youth, their beauty and their sexuality, not in their capacity to lead.'”

It’s an interesting point, and I agree with the general thrust of the article, but I have some quibbles. First, a language issue: I wish they wouldn’t say “the media” when they mean “television and film”. There are other media besides those. But then, people say this all the time. I myself am probably guilty.

In this case, however, it’s important to note specifically what media we’re talking about. Television and film being visual media, it goes without saying that they will place an emphasis on the appearance of everything they depict.

Is this realistic? No, but to some extent this is to be expected. These are media where it is easy to get away with being shallow. Note that I do not say that all television programs and films are shallow, or that they do not serve worthy purposes, but only that it is possible to get away with being shallow in them.

If you’re somebody who has some mediocre idea for a television program, for instance, what’s the easiest way to make it sell: hone and improve it until it is thoughtful and well-written, or get some attractive female to carry out your existing, mediocre concept?

And it’s not just women–though women do suffer more of the burden than men, primarily because men are more visual than women, and so television is slightly biased in men’s favor–who are affected by this. Whatever the thing in question is, in visual media, the path of least resistance is to focus on the most visually appealing aspects. This is true even for the most serious, educational film and television, which is why there are more programs about astronomy than about mathematics.

So, yes, it is absolutely true, “the media” in general does offer a very distorted picture of women. But here’s the thing: it offers a distorted picture of most stuff. And here’s another thing: I think most young women are smart enough to figure this out. I’ve read somewhere that young women mature intellectually faster than young men, and even as a young boy I knew that most things on television were ludicrously inaccurate. I suspect, therefore, that young women are smart enough to know that, as well.

P.S. Whenever I write about issues like this, I’m worried I’ll offend people accidentally. If something I wrote above upsets you, by all means mention it in the comments, and know that I was not out to offend.

Here’s an interesting story: a Pew Research center study reported that Obama has received the most negative coverage of all the 2012 candidates recently.

One thing I like about the CBS News story linked above is its claim that this report “cuts against the widespread conservative claim that the ‘liberal media’ aides [sic] Mr. Obama…” No, it doesn’t. I don’t believe there is anything whatever that could cut against that claim in the minds of Conservatives, because anything that does must necessarily be a product of same “liberal media”, according to the Conservative way of thinking. It’s an utterly un-falsifiable concept.

Nor is there a major pro-Conservative bias in the press, however. I think the study found what it did because, as President, Obama has to actually do things that have measurable effects, as opposed to simply talking and being talked about like his prospective opponents.

Ordinarily, on hearing news like this, I jokingly post something to the effect that H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are actually true. (And I still sort of did do that in the title of this post. I couldn’t pass it up.)

However, in this instance, there’s also a somewhat more serious side to it. This article by Brian Switek at Wired does a good job describing how the story has been over-hyped by the mainstream press.