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…)

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“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)

“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)

I wrote a glowing review of Jane Got a Gun back when it was in theaters, and have seen it several times since, appreciating it more each time. As it is being released on DVD/Blu-Ray this week, it seemed like a good time for me to write about it at length.

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 key is balance. Robert Towne, who wrote the original screenplay for Chinatown with a happy ending, called the effect of the final film a “tunnel at the end of the light”. You can’t make a film that is unrelentingly dark throughout, or it is excruciating. Likewise, you can’t make a film that is completely lighthearted, or it is cloying. If Jane ended as grimly as it begins, it would feel pointless and unsatisfying.

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.

Quick! Name that movie about a pilot who gets horribly burned and disfigured. You know, the one where earlier in the story, he’s been trying to save the life of his secret lover. In fact, he’s so desperate that he turns traitor and aids a tyrannical, militaristic government. But even so, he fails–his lover dies, and he becomes a barely-living shell of his former self.

Got it yet?

Actually–as you already guessed from the title of this post–that describes two movies: The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche, and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen.

The English Patient was nominated for 12 academy awards, including best picture, which it won. It’s considered a powerful, moving, tragic love story. Revenge of the Sith was a box office hit, but was generally received poorly by critics. The Devil is in the details.

Actually, in this case, the Devil is in how the main character is written and performed. Count Almasy, the lead in The English Patient, is just likable enough that while you don’t exactly forgive him for giving aid to the Nazis, you can believe he truly did it out of his love for Katherine. He really seems like he cares about her. Add to this Ralph Fiennes’s charisma and acting skill, and you have a compelling doomed romance.

Anakin Skywalker, on the other hand, is an entitled jerk from his first scene to his last. He constantly whines about why he hasn’t been given privileges that he has not earned, while simultaneously breaking every Jedi rule. Even his supposed love for Padme never seems like anything other than an excuse to commit further atrocities. He claims to be trying to save her (“from [his] nightmares”), but ultimately kills her himself because of his inability to control his arrogance and rage.

Now, I’ve left out quite a few differences between the two movies. The English Patient is told through flashbacks, and there is another plot running through it parallel to the story of Almasy: the story of Hana, the nurse who finds him after he’s been burned, and her own struggle to deal with the horror of war and death. The only other plot element in Revenge of the Sith is about an evil robot General with four arms. So maybe the main character isn’t the only issue here.

Even so, I still think there is a really strong story in Revenge of the Sith. You can see it whenever McGregor, Portman or Ian McDiarmid are on the screen. It’s just that it kept getting undercut by the massive problems with the way Anakin Skywalker is written and portrayed. (Once he becomes pure evil in the final third of the movie, it really comes together. This is probably because Christensen was better at playing evil, and an evil character is easier to write than a complex one.)

The bottom line is: when Count Almasy gets burned alive, you think: “poor guy, he just wanted to help the woman he loved.” When Anakin Skywalker gets burned alive, you think: “the S.O.B. had it coming.”