But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.
This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.
Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.
What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.
The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.
Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.
They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.
Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.
Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.
In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.
Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral. Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.
At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.
The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.
It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.
The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.
But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.
As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”
I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.
I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.
Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.
So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.
Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.
Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.
This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.
This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1
Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.
What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.
Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:
“1984” by George Orwell
“Knights of the Old Republic II” (2004)
“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
Nineteen Eighty-Fourby George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
Eating Bullby Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)
KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.
Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.
I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.
Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3
But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.
To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.
I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity. It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.
My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)
Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics. As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.
This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing. Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.
Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it. But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.
And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.
This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much. I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.
So what’s the common thread?
While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics. Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists. They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).
Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.
Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.
One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics. As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.
Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.
It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.
Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al. Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”. So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.
The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.
This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney. And Disney has been winning it.
Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film. But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.
The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are. Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.
It’s important to understand what promotion really entails. It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet. It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.
My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios. They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.
Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.
And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question. (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)
“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens? I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”
The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that. Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion. He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.
Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill. And the other movie studios are unable to match it.
I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.
I’ve referenced this movie many times on this blog–I’ve quoted lines from it, hailed its timeless themes, and in general sung its praises at every turn. And yet, I’ve never done a proper post about it. Well, I intend to rectify that now.
Of course, you might think it hardly seems necessary. The movie is practically legendary at this point. It’s been referenced in scores of other movies, its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Kubrick and Coppola, and of course, its subject matter remains relevant to the politics of the Middle East to this day.
And yet, for all that, critics don’t really get Lawrence of Arabia. They still can’t understand what makes it great. Fortunately, I’m here now, and can tell them.
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…
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.
“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.
This movie has all the flaws of every Star Wars movie ever made, only more so. It has dialogue that is worse than anything Lucas ever wrote. It has characters who appear out of nowhere, with no buildup, and are disposed of summarily almost as soon as they arrive. It has a plot that makes Attack of the Clones look like an intricately-woven masterpiece of storytelling. It has horrible CGI special effects that are worse than the prequels’ decade-old CGI effects, and it has sets and costumes that are worse than the originals’ four decades-old sets and costumes. Somehow, the CGI stormtroopers in the prequels look more real than the real stormtroopers in The Force Awakens.
The villains in this movie are called things like “the First Order” and “the Knights of Ren”. It is not clear who they are, what they want, how they got there, or how they got all the men and materiel that looks like the stuff the Empire had 30 years before.
Opposing this inexplicable fascist regime is something called “the Resistance” which is allied with something else called “the Republic”. Since these organizations are both affiliated with the heroes from the originals, the fact that the First Order achieved this absurd degree of power indicates that Luke, Leia, Admiral Ackbar and the rest must be utter morons. They toppled one Empire only to somehow allow another one almost exactly like it to spring up!
Luke, perhaps having become rightly ashamed of his role in this disaster, has vanished, and Leia is looking for him. The movie begins with a Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron, meeting an old man who gives him a map that may lead to Luke. Poe then gives the map to a droid, and is captured by the stormtroopers of the First Order. The droid escapes and is rescued by a junk scavenger, Rey.
Meanwhile, the lead villain, Kylo Ren, interrogates Poe, who eventually tells him about the droid. While Ren is away, one stormtrooper decides to free the pilot and escape with him. The stormtrooper, who is named “Finn”, apparently managed to resist years of brainwashing and became horrified when ordered to fire on civilians. This has led him to desert. (His name and his intro both made me think of Flynn Taggart)
The two steal a TIE fighter and escape, but are shot down. Finn ejects and, thinking Poe has been killed, wanders the desert planet for help, eventually finding Rey and the droid, moments before the First Order soldiers do. Rey, Finn and the droid escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, which is conveniently in the junkyard / shantytown that Rey lives in.
Let me now pause the synopsis to analyze this sequence. The Millennium Falcon is an extremely famous ship. As we shall find out soon, Han Solo, the ship’s owner, is legendary for his exploits in the war. Moreover, Rey makes her living selling ship parts scavenged from wreckage, and yet for some reason a fully-functional ship was sitting right here?
During their escape, they of course engage in a dogfight with the First Order forces. At one point during this fight, one of them says “we need some cover.” Cover is essential during a gunfight on the ground. It is virtually impossible in an aerial battle. This is utter nonsense.
Let me also stop to mention that Daisy Ridley’s flat performance as Rey pretty much kills any tension this scene might possibly have possessed, though in fairness to her, Rey is extremely unlikable, so it’s not all Ridley’s fault. John Boyega’s performance is good, and Finn is a relatable “Everyman” character, but it’s not enough to save the scene. This state of affairs will persist throughout the film, so feel free to go back and re-read this paragraph every time I mention either character– it will apply equally well at that time.
Somehow or other, the two get pulled aboard a large and sinister ship. They hide in the Falcon‘s trademark secret compartments, which does no good at all when they are boarded by Han Solo and Chewbacca, who know that underneath the floor is the first place to look.
Rey and Finn are shocked to meet the legendary Han Solo, who tells them that Luke is missing, and looks at the map the droid is carrying. He tells them it will help them locate Luke. He also tells them that he is smuggling some kind of giant monsters, and has apparently angered some tangential hooligans in the process.
By an extraordinary coincidence, several rival gangs of these tangential hooligans happen to show up at once, demanding that Solo pay them back or turn over his cargo or something. The hooligans also are looking for Rey and Finn and the droid on behalf of the First Order, even though the First Order only realized they should be looking for them 20 minutes earlier.
At this point, the monsters get loose, killing the hooligans and enabling our heroes to escape in the Falcon. Han urges them to join the Resistance and takes them to a cantina clearly meant to evoke the one in A New Hope.
Here they meet the worst character in all of Star Wars–a poorly animated cat with glasses. Yes, you read that correctly. All I can think is that someone said “What if we crossed Jar Jar Binks with an Ewok, and then gave them the same function as Dexter Jettster?” And then they did it, and they got this idiotic character, who is ham-handedly introduced for the sole purpose of plot development. The character is named Maz Kanata, but they should have just called her “Eks Pozishun”.
Around this time, Finn decides he wants to run away and not bother fighting the First Order. He tries to arrange passage to the Outer Rim with some more tangential hooligans. Elsewhere, Rey wanders off down a dark corridor where she hears ghostly voices. There she finds Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in a pile of junk. When she picks it up she is subjected to a vision that indicates she is Force-sensitive. She’s scared by this, and says she doesn’t want the lightsaber when Maz comes to find her. (Maz, by the way, somehow came to have Luke’s lightsaber. The ridiculous contrivances never end in this Galaxy.) Rey runs away, and Maz gives the lightsaber to Finn.
Meanwhile, the First Order has just completed building their impossible planet-destroying base that makes no sense. One of their military commanders, who makes the Colonel from Avatarlook like a subtle, nuanced and well-developed character, gives an absurdly hammy speech to celebrate the first firing of the superweapon.
It was completely unclear to me what they destroyed with it. I mean, clearly it was some important bunch of planets, but who the people on the planets were, or what was important about those planets, or why we should care about them was unexplained. Hack screenwriting at its absolute worst.
I know, I know: you’re thinking “But the same thing could be said about the destruction of Alderaan in Episode IV!” Well, yes; but it worked in that movie because everything was new. It was the first one most people saw, and we expected to be dropped in the middle of things. Force Awakens is supposed to be a follow-up movie, and so the audience reasonably expects to be able to follow along from the previous movie, and not have a bunch of new stuff dumped on them.
Could they not have blown up something we cared about? Something we had seen before? Barring that, could they not have at least blown up something that had some strategic significance?
At roughly the same time that they are blowing up the planets, Kylo Ren and his men arrive at the planet Solo, Finn and Rey are on, and commence shooting everyone. Ren captures Rey, and carries her off in accordance with melodramatic tradition. I was surprised he didn’t say “I have you now, pretty one!”, and twirl his mustache, except of course he has no mustache. Possibly the reason for the mask is that he was ashamed at being a stock villain who had no mustache.
Finn fights off the stormtroopers using Luke’s lightsaber, and “the Resistance”, including Poe, arrive in X-Wings to fight the First Order. This is the one part of the film that might have managed to evoke some nostalgia for the original Star Wars, except that such battles have been done better and more often by countless of the “Expanded Universe” stories. This tiny dogfight paled next to, say, Rogue Squadron II. But I suppose the generation Force Awakens is pitched at never played those games.
Ren and his forces leave, and General Organa (formerly known as “Princess Leia”) arrives, and shares a brief moment with Han Solo, the father of her son (Kylo Ren). It’s the best scene in the movie, probably because the annoying newcomers get out of the way for once and let us see two original Star Wars characters (one of whom is even portrayed by a good actor!) speaking to each other. Their lines are really good too:
Han: You changed your hair.
Leia (giving him a sarcastic look): Same jacket.
Han: No… different jacket.
This was a good scene. It deserved to be in a better movie.
Leia and the Resistance take Han and Finn and the rest of the crew to their base, where they begin to analyze the situation. The First Order’s new weapon is an even biggerDeath Star–a hilariously lame idea that the movie seems hellbent on emphasizing as much as possible; going so far as to have the Resistance displaying holograms of the two weapons side-by-side.
Oh, and do I even need to tell you that Ren has taken Rey to this same super-base to interrogate her regarding the whereabouts of Skywalker? Didn’t think so. You’d think these evil overlord-types would have learned by now not to conduct all their business aboard their superweapons after what happened to the first two Death Stars. It’s like if Hitler had his personal office on the battleship Bismarck.
Rey resists Ren’s interrogation, and for some reason he takes his helmet off, revealing that he looks like a young Alan Rickman-as-Severus Snape. (I suspect Disney’s marketing people were well aware of this resemblance.)
The Resistance, realizing they have to destroy the new superweapon, launch a daring raid to infiltrate the base, led by–who else would you choose?–Han, an old man who has already deserted the cause once, and whose own son is the leader of the enemy forces, and Finn, who a few days earlier actually worked for the First Order.
Rey meanwhile has managed to escape and is wandering around the First Order’s base at random. Ren can’t use the Force to sense her because he is too busy throwing temper tantrums that would make even young Anakin Skywalker ashamed.
Han, Finn and Chewbacca eventually run into Rey, and then set out to plant the explosives at the critical point that will destroy the station. But will they be in time? The weapon is nearly charged, and the Resistance leaders know it is mere moments from firing and destroying their planet.
Many have criticized this sequence for being blatantly copied from Episode IV. But that’s not really the problem. All the Star Wars films intentionally echo one another; so having this same setup isn’t what’s wrong with this sequence.
What’s wrong with this sequence is that it’s done really badly. Everything about it feels like the work of amateurs. No–not amateurs. Hacks. It feels lazy. When experts do it, it’s a recurring leitmotif. When amateurs do it, it’s a loving homage. But when hacks do it, it’s just depressing recycling.
When the First Order base is close to firing, C-3PO actually says “It will take a miracle to save us now!” This is by far the worst line in Star Wars. I can’t believe it made it past the editors. Note that there is no similar line in the equivalent scene in A New Hope. That’s because Lucas didn’t need to tell his audience “Hey, you feel tension now! The heroes are in trouble!”; he had built that feeling organically, and the actors expressed it with their eyes and their body language. A New Hope is by no means a great film, but it felt like the work of people who cared.
Star Wars died for me at this point. So I guess it was fitting that in the next few minutes, the last truly interesting and likable character–not to mention good actor–from Star Wars also made his exit.
Aboard the base, Han confronts his son (while standing over a bottomless pit, of course) and asks him to return to the light. Ren removes his helmet, turns to his father, says some words of contrition–and then runs him through with his lightsaber. The mortally-wounded Han then plunges into the pit below.
It’s a powerful moment–more powerful, indeed, than J.J. Abrams “can possibly imagine”; because it symbolizes how his movie destroys the soul of the franchise. Here we have a beloved character from the original movies being cut down by a two-bit emo villain cobbled together from spare parts. This is the moment when Star Wars fundamentally changes from being the epic space opera Lucas envisioned into, in every sense, a Mickey Mouse operation.
The rest is perfunctory–the X-Wings blow up the enemy base, the heroes fight a lightsaber duel with the villain (Both Finn and Rey take their turn) and escape victorious back to the Resistance base. It all feels very much done in haste–“here you go, here are your classic Star Wars tropes, eat them up!”–with no emotional power. The essence of the characters is forgotten. We never really see Leia mourn Han’s death–there’s no time for characterization or emotion, as she has to hustle Rey along to the final plot point: finding Luke Skywalker.
R2-D2 powers up and together with the new droid they are able to complete the star map that leads to Luke–a scene that looks even more ridiculous than it sounds, once you realize it is comparable to the Joint Chiefs of Staff having been unable to locate a China-shaped cut-out from a map of the Earth.
Rey flies off in the Millennium Falcon to a very beautiful planet of rocky islands. There she finally finds the protagonist of the original trilogy, looking worn and grizzled, with a thick grey beard. Luke, ever the odds-defying hero, pulls off one more miracle escape: the film ends before his character can be ruined along with everything else.
I’ve criticized George Lucas a lot, and he made a lot of artistic decisions I don’t agree with. But dammit, he was an artist, and he had a talent for film-making. And what’s more, he had a vision. Here there is talent, perhaps, but no vision. This is a cargo cult Star Wars–made by copying superficial aspects only, with no understanding of what made it compelling.
Given all that, why do so many people like The Force Awakens? I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.