I thought Oliver Stone’s JFK would be the weirdest movie I ever saw about the Kennedy assassination, but Jackie has surpassed it. I went to see it again, thinking I must have been mistaken in my first impression. The film can’t possibly be as bizarre as I remember, I thought. I must have just misunderstood it.
I did get a few lines of dialogue slightly wrong in my original review, but as it turned out, the lines were even stranger than I remembered. In Jackie’s frenzied query about the caliber of the bullet, she not only says she thinks it’s a heavier round “like soldiers use”, but also like those used for deer hunting.
Also, her aide doesn’t say “build a fortress in Boston and disappear.” He says “Disappear. Build a fortress in Boston.” Not appreciably better.
I talked to someone else about this movie, trying to work out what it was all about. She had an interesting interpretation: that the Journalist and the Priest who Jackie talks to aren’t meant as literal characters but as representatives of Journalism and Religion.
This would explain why these characters don’t have names; they are just “the Journalist” and “the Priest”. It also explains why their dialogues with Jackie seem so surreal. The Journalist, in particular, is way too rude to her–I don’t think a journalist would speak like that to any interview subject, especially not the President’s widow. But if he’s representing Journalism in general, Jackie’s perception would be that Journalists are incredibly rude.
Interpreted this way, the dialogues aren’t two characters talking; they are philosophical exercises meant to examine Jackie’s relationship to the institutions of the Press and the Church. And by extension, it makes sense to guess that most of the rest of the movie is her interaction with another institution: the Government.
If you watch the movie this way, you get the sense that Jackie is extremely disenchanted with all three of these. That’s sort of what I meant when I wrote the movie was subversive–major institutions appear useless or untrustworthy.
All that said, I’m still not convinced that this is the way to interpret the movie. Besides which, I’ve never been a big fan of allegories, and this one–if indeed that is what it is–is still ham-handed. A piece of drama must work first as drama, and only then can it have allegorical or symbolic meaning. The dialogues in Jackie are not smooth dialogues, no matter how much philosophical depth they may have or aspire to have.
But I don’t want to just give a short-attention span dismissal and say, “Oh, the script is rotten. Sad!” Because while it gets almost all the micro-level details of dialogue wrong, there is one very macro-level idea that it gets right, and that is the use of images and symbols (e.g. JFK’s funeral procession) to create legacies, and to shape the perception of history.
A few other observations:
The soundtrack didn’t seem as bad this time, although I still thought it came in too loud at inappropriate times when silence would have been better.
The scene where the Priest sums up his reflections on Life and Death is very strong, largely because it is the late John Hurt delivering the lines. Great actor. R.I.P.
I said this before, but it’s worth repeating: all the acting was great, which was especially impressive given the problems I’ve mentioned with the dialogue.
Have I mentioned I have some issues with the script?
Lastly, I don’t get why people are calling this a “biopic”. It isn’t one. A biopic should give you a sense of who a person is, and how they evolve over time. Jackie takes place over a very short time frame, and it deals with a woman’s reaction to a tragic and shocking crime that had few historical parallels. That’s fascinating subject matter, but it’s not a biopic because it really doesn’t give you a larger sense of who Jackie was or what her life was like.
I’m not complaining about that. I think this was a far more innovative thing to do. I’m just saying they shouldn’t be calling it a “biopic”. It’s more of a historical drama, on the order of Julius Caesar.
That’s all for now. I might write more later. This movie has limitless potential for discussion.
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…
Before we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine. (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)
George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships. He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.
Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.
In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis. The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.
And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.
The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting. In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.
In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:
“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”
This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests. In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.
Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.
Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.
Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.
Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power. The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.
There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.
This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right. Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law. Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.
Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.
This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic. Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.
The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it. Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.
Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking. Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing. Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.
As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.
What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.
Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.
Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?
Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences. (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)
Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring. The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.
The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer. Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.
The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.
I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”
Denial is a courtroom drama about the libel lawsuit filed by author David Irving (portayed by Timothy Spall) against Prof. Deborah Lipstadt (portrayed by Rachel Weisz). Irving sued Lipstadt for calling him a “Holocaust denier” in one of her books. Because Irving brought the case in England, the burden of proof is on the accused, and so Lipstadt and her legal team are required to prove Irving knowingly lied in denying the Holocaust.
As part of the research for the trial, Lipstadt and her lawyers go to Auschwitz, where her barrister, Richard Rampton, asks a series of matter-of-fact questions about the camp and the methods of killing. This makes Lipstadt very uncomfortable, but Rampton argues it is necessary to build their case.
As the trial begins, it is clear that Irving is a master of public relations. He acts as his own lawyer, against Lipstadt’s well-financed legal team, to cast himself as an underdog and create a “David vs. Goliath” image.
As part of their strategy, Lipstadt’s lawyers don’t allow her to speak at the trial, or to the press. They also refuse to allow Holocaust survivors to speak, even after Lipstadt is approached by one, pleading with her to allow their voices to be heard.
Lipstadt is greatly distressed by this. But as Rampton explains, these are the sacrifices they must make. “It’s the price you pay for winning,” he tells Lipstadt. The goal is to make the trial not about the Holocaust, but about Irving himself.
The strategy works well, and gradually they begin to expose Irving as an anti-Semite, and his “historical errors” as deliberately calculated to paint Hitler in the best possible light. Ultimately, their strategy succeeds, and Irving is ruled to have knowingly lied to deny the Holocaust.
The victory is satisfying, but Irving remains a genius at the dark art of “spin”–after the verdict is announced Lipstadt watches as Irving is interview on television saying that he obviously beat Lipstadt’s legal team, but was just not forceful enough to convince the Judge.
Although the ending of the film is as upbeat as one could expect, given the subject matter, there is a certain subtext that suggests Irving may have lost in court, but will use his skills as a showman to win with the press. I’m not even sure if the filmmakers intended this, but Irving is portrayed as a shrewd and manipulative man, and the implication seems to be that he–and others like him–could continue to trick uninformed people.
The acting is terrific throughout. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as Lipstadt, right down to her Queens accent. Timothy Spall plays Irving as a man of intelligence and a veneer of “old English gentleman” charm masking a core of hatred. Every performance is excellent.
The script is not bad, but at times tries too hard to be clever and snappy (a common flaw in dramas nowadays), and too often has characters blatantly stating exposition or background information for the benefit of the audience.
The annoying wordiness of the script is compounded by the fact that some of the film’s most powerful scenes are the ones where the characters don’t speak. The scenes at Auschwitz are every bit as powerfully haunting as they should be, without any words being necessary.
Of course, a courtroom drama is bound to have some talking, and the script is certainly good enough when it needs to be. The trial scenes are riveting, even knowing the outcome.
It’s a dark film, and not only because of the Holocaust subject matter, but also because of its depiction of how the bigot Irving advances his agenda with lies and clever manipulation of the press and public alike. The concept of truth itself comes under attack from Irving, and Lipstadt is forced to confront the possibility that to even respond would be to lend him legitimacy.
Overall, a very good and interesting film. I recommend it. It prompted me to do more research regarding Irving, the lawsuit, and the subject of Holocaust denial generally. I have a lot more to write on those topics, but that will be a separate post.
I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)
Historical dramas are tricky. The director has to balance telling a story with a satisfying dramatic arc with staying at least reasonably faithful to the facts of what happened. Since life rarely conforms to neat three-act structures, this is always a difficult feat to achieve.
Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1960s Virginia. Interracial marriage was banned in the state, and so, after several encounters with law enforcement, Richard and Mildred are forced to leave their home state and live in Washington D.C., which recognised their marriage.
Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy,who referred their case to the ACLU. Ultimately, it resulted in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which the Lovings won, legalising interracial marriage throughout the United States.
This is a summary of the events depicted in the movie, and if it sounds rather dry, let me make it clear that this is merely the framework of the film. The real meat of the story is in the interactions between Mildred, Richard, and their families and friends–as well as the occasional lawyer, police officer, or journalist.
Much of the film depicts everyday events in their lives. Richard and Mildred went to work, shopped, cooked, cleaned house and raised their children like any other couple. It is that basic normality which underscores the injustice driving the film’s narrative: that such a healthy family should be forbidden brings home the sheer immorality of the law.
Because the film is almost completely focused on Richard and Mildred, rather than the court battle surrounding them, it is critical that the actors portraying them be able to carry the film. They are more than up to the challenge. Ruth Negga portrays Mildred as a kind, sensitive woman who ultimately realizes that she is fighting for more than just herself, but also for many other couples. She is intelligent and strong, often without ever saying a word. Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, portrays Richard as a man who may lack education or sophistication, but who is driven by a profound decency and love for his family.
Both Negga and Edgerton do terrific work. I worry that their roles may not be flashy enough to earn them the credit they deserve, but both are absolutely marvelous at conveying so much emotion in such subtle ways.
Despite the brilliance of its stars, Loving doesn’t completely succeed at balancing historical realism vs. the necessities of drama. Sometimes scenes go on a bit too long, or don’t resolve themselves in anything dramatically significant. It’s no coincidence that the poorest scenes in the film are the ones in the latter half which involve the Lovings’ lawyers, and from which the Lovings themselves are absent.
There are nit-picks I could make here and there about the historical accuracy of certain lines of dialogue, and a few of the reporters didn’t look authentically 1960s to me. But these are minor gripes, and it seems a disservice to a wonderful film to dwell on such things.
Loving is a quiet film about decent, moral people who love one another, and therefore it won’t get much love from the folks who go to movies to see glitzy CGI special effects and anti-heroes betraying each other. In the present political climate, however, I think we could do with a few more Lovings, and a lot less of the other sort.
As I touched on in this post, I approach drama criticism differently than many people do. I tend to criticize specific things like “I liked the performance, but not the writing”, rather than just say “I didn’t like that character”, for example.
I just realized the other day why I do this: it’s because I started in drama criticism by analyzing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, thanks to Gayden Wren.
For those who don’t know, there are only 14 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. And Gilbert and Sullivan have been dead for over a century, so it’s not like there are any new ones coming out.
So, whereas fans of, say, Star Wars can always be looking forward to the next installment, G & S fans pretty much have to content ourselves with re-evaluating the existing body of work. This means watching performances, listening to recordings, and then critiquing and analyzing them.
Very quickly, a young G&S fan gets to know the core libretto and music pretty well. Then they have to start comparing different performances and actors. For example, I greatly prefer Martyn Green’s Ko-Ko in The Mikado to John Reed’s. Green always seemed spontaneous, (which must be really hard with material one has performed a thousand times)…
…whereas Reed seemed robotic. (In his defense, Reed did seem like a better singer.)
My point is, when you get used to seeing or hearing different performances of the same lines, scenes, etc., you learn to separate acting from writing from directing from set design and so on. Being a G&S fan isn’t the only way to do this–I imagine Shakespeare aficionados are the same way.
But most people don’t evaluate works of drama that way. They just make a gut reaction judgment on whether they liked it or not.
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.
Years ago, I was working on a screenplay for a dystopian movie. I ultimately shelved it to work on books instead, though I did put some elements of it into The Start of the Majestic World.
There were two plot threads in the movie: one was the personal story of the main character, his girlfriend, and a rival for her affections. The second thread was about change in society generally, and how it goes back and forth from hedonism to brutal tyranny. The idea was that the “societal” themes formed a backdrop to the more personal story. I called the two threads “micro” and “macro”.
The macro plot involved a popular, charismatic and transformative President at the end of his term, campaigning for his chosen successor. And his successor was a member of his administration who had worked well with him, but who had the dull personality of a bureaucrat.
But his successor faced a surprise challenge from a radical candidate, who was dangerous and reckless, but also very charismatic and popular. The challenger wanted to dismantle all of the old administration’s policies.
In the second act, the challenger won in spite of the government’s best efforts to stop him. After which, everything went to hell.
My working title for the screenplay was “The Fall Guy”, because the main character ends up taking the fall for a lot of stuff done by the original administration once the challenger takes over.
I set the screenplay aside about 6 years ago, mostly because the dialogue had gotten too heavy on political philosophy for a movie. But I’ll admit, I’ve recently thought about revisiting it…
“You can let the sun shine on your story, if you still have a mind to,” Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) tells his ex-fiancée, Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), in the final act of Jane Got a Gun, as they await an attack from the Bishop Boys–the criminal gang out for revenge on Jane and her wounded husband, Bill “Ham” Hammond. (Noah Emmerich)
Once in a while, a movie comes along that really dazzles me. Lawrence of Arabia was one, Chinatown was one, and Jane Got a Gun is the latest. Westerns don’t usually hold much appeal for me, and I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor (as the villain, John Bishop) weren’t two of my favorite actors. Their performances alone would make a solid film. But there is much more to Jane than that.
The first thing that stands out is the bleak desert environment–Mandy Walker’s cinematography does the harsh landscape justice, and communicates the feeling of emptiness and vast desolation that I do so love in art.
The early scenes of the movie are really meant to establish a mood more than physical distances between places. Jane’s ride to her ex-fiancé’s house, with its beautiful silhouetted rider shots and underscored by haunting music, reminiscent of The English Patient, is about creating an atmosphere. The soundtrack is tremendous throughout the film. While rarely grand or sweeping, it is full of subtle touches, like the ominous growl that sounds as Jane enters the town of Lullaby, implanting the idea that populated places are dangerous and sinister. This foreshadows the shopkeeper’s indifference as Jane is seized by one of the Bishop Boys.
Subtlety and nuance are what make Jane such a riveting film. The characters’ emotions are conveyed in silences and in glances as much as they are in dialogue. The scene in which Jane hands Dan a roll of bills as payment for his service as a gunslinger packs an emotional punch, as both of their faces show them recalling the happier days of their youthful romance. Dan says little, but with every move conveys his misery at losing Jane.
The film is packed with moments like these–from the suspenseful scene when Jane, Dan and Ham hear an ominous sound from outside the house, to Dan’s tense encounter with another member of the Bishop gang, it balances building the suspense of the impending showdown with exploring the Jane/Dan/Ham love triangle.
The love story–or more accurately, stories–reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s romances, especially Far From the Madding Crowd. In Hardy romances, someone usually marries someone other than who they are truly “meant for” first, only to encounter that person again later. This is a tricky thing to do in writing a romance, but in Jane, as in Hardy’s novels, it is written so well that the actions of all three characters seem reasonable and logical, and never forced or contrived.
Jane loves Dan, and Dan loves Jane, but cruel circumstances keep them apart. Both characters are honorable and honest, and that forms the tragic core of the story–both are trying to do the right thing, and both suffer for it. Bad things happen to good people.
I think the marketing for the film was misguided in that it played up the action/gun-fighting elements, instead of the personal relationships at the heart of the film. The Bishop Boys, though very effective villains–thanks in particular to McGregor’s performance–are secondary to the real drama. They are the catalyst for Jane taking control of her life and confronting her fears, and for reuniting her with Dan.
Another marketing mistake was to play the climactic scene in the trailer. This lessened the effect of the powerful sequence when Jane, filled with the rage of a mother who has lost her child, holds John Bishop at gunpoint. It is the culmination of her evolution from the sweet, gentle country girl of the flashbacks into a strong and confident woman. Bishop tries to use his slimy charms to save himself, but Jane will have none of it. There is a desperation in Bishop’s eyes when he realizes that even after confessing to Jane that her daughter is alive, she will not hesitate to mete out justice.
Where Jane departs from the Hardy romance pattern is that it ultimately rewards its characters with a happy ending. A few ignorant critics may grouse that it seems forced or tonally dissonant, but in fact the film only works dramatically if the ending is a happy one. It has to provide some hope, some measure of relief, in order to balance all the pain Jane and Dan endure.
As I said, I rank this film as one of my favorites, alongside Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, both of which have decidedly grim endings. But those two films start off relatively light, and gradually descend into darkness. Jane starts off dark, and gradually rises to a hopeful and upbeat ending.
The Western is a quintessentially “American” genre, and Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.
The film touches briefly, yet significantly, on the Civil War–the conflict at the heart of America as we know it. It forms an important backdrop for the events of the film, but never are the political or social details allowed to overshadow what really makes a strong narrative: the people caught up in these events, and their struggle to survive.
“Not much sun in my story,” Jane tells Dan before she begins recounting the horrors she experienced at the hands of the Bishop Boys. This line, in addition to echoing an earlier line of Jane’s, also sets up one of the most memorable transitions in the movie: from the muzzle flash of Jane’s pistol as she fires the fatal round into Bishop to the sunlit sky as she and Dan ride to rescue their daughter.
The sun in Jane’s story, after a lifetime’s worth of darkness, shines brilliantly–and, most importantly, it is through Jane’s toughness and bravery that it does.