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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Natalie Portman in “Jane Got a Gun” All Rights Reserved by the Weinstein Co. and re-used under “Fair Use”.
[UPDATE 4/23/2016: I loved this movie so much I also wrote a more in-depth analysis of it here. Note that it gives away the ending.]

 

The Western genre more or less died out after the 1970s. The social scientist in me wants to attribute this to the cultural change in that decade–the mythology of the American West was focused heavily on the image of white men with guns as heroes, and cast other groups as either supporting characters or villains. Not the most progressive genre.

But as the title indicates, Jane Got a Gun gives the firearms to a female–a mother, protecting her family from a gang of villains called “The Bishop Boys”, named for their cruel leader. (Ewan McGregor)

Natalie Portman plays Jane, the frontierswoman whose husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) encounters his old gang and is shot nearly to death by them. When he returns home on the verge of death, Jane takes her young daughter to safety and rides off to get help from her old fiancé, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), whom she believed had died in the Civil War, and had met again only after her marriage to Bill.

Dan at first refuses to help, still bitter that Jane left him for Bill. The Bishop Boys, meanwhile, are interrogating one of Hammond’s associates in the fur trade regarding his whereabouts. Bishop clearly remembers Jane as well, and means to track them both down.

Having been rebuffed by Dan, Jane rides into town to buy weapons. As Jane is leaving town with her arms and ammunition, one of the Bishop Boy goons drags her into an alley and holds her at gunpoint, demanding to know where Hammond is and threatening to rape her.

Dan arrives, and aims his rifle at the gang member, who offers to split the bounty on Bill Hammond with him.  Dan listens, feigning interest, and Jane takes the opportunity to fire a shot into the thug’s head.

Jane and Dan hastily ride out of town and back to Jane’s ranch, where Jane pays Dan to help prepare them for the inevitable attack by the Bishop Boys.  During this, we see flashbacks to Jane and Dan’s courtship, as well as to the beginning of the trouble with the Bishop gang.

Gradually, as she and Dan scramble to prepare the home’s defenses while also tending to the wounded Bill, their old feelings start to emerge.  Dan recounts how his love for Jane had sustained him through the War, and how it broke him to find that she’d married another man and had a child with him.

That night, Dan’s resentment towards Bill nearly boils over, and he holds his gun at the bed-ridden man–until Jane enters, which prompts the drunken gunslinger to stagger away, muttering “I don’t know what you saw in him.”

As Dan keeps watch from the upstairs window that night, Jane joins him and tells him about what happened to her after she joined the Bishop’s wagon train.  She had a daughter (named Mary, after Dan’s mother) with her when she placed herself under Bishops’ “protection”.  The Bishops then took Mary from Jane, and forced Jane into prostitution. The scene flashes back to when Hammond, as a member of the gang, tried to free her, but was prevented by Bishop.

The next scene was perhaps the most disturbing, as Hammond asks one of Bishop’s men what became of Mary. He chillingly replies something to the effect that “Bishop told me to ‘take care of her’–he didn’t explain what he meant, so I made my best guess.  Did you know she can’t swim?”

In a fury, Hammond races to the brothel and, in a violent but extremely cathartic scene, guns down the clientele and rescues a weeping Jane.

The transition from Dan’s face as Jane begins telling the story, to the flashback sequence, and then back to Dan, is really powerful.  His expression changes completely, and his rage is such that he can barely spit a few words to say that he hopes John Bishop himself is coming.

As the night wears on, Jane and Dan venture outside the house.  The scene is dark and atmospheric, and Jane utters a few words of courageous resolve.  Then, shots ring out and Jane and Dan both hit the ground.

So begins the climactic showdown–I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that it is immensely satisfying.  Not to give too much away, but watch for a certain transition that begins with a close-up on a revolver barrel–it works really well.

What a lot of the “feminist” or “strong woman” action movies get wrong is to portray the woman as a Rambo-like super-human, crushing everything in her path.  Jane Got a Gun avoids this pitfall–Jane is believably vulnerable, but gains her strength on fiery resolve and force of will, rather than impossible physical strength. Portman does a terrific job conveying the transformation from sweet, innocent girl to hardened frontierswoman that Jane undergoes.

Edgerton is suitably gruff while conveying an underlying decency, and his chemistry with Portman is absolutely marvelous. McGregor is the very picture of the “villain we love to hate”. All the Bishop gang henchmen are utterly loathsome in different ways, making each one’s demise a satisfyingly bloody catharsis.

The beautiful landscapes and moody soundtrack really stuck with me.  I’ve been a sucker for desert movies since I saw Lawrence of Arabia as an impressionable sixteen-year-old, and my Fallout: New Vegas binge only solidified my love for the harsh, barren landscapes. Jane uses this type of scenery to create a marvelous feeling of loneliness and isolation.

It was interesting to watch this movie so soon after seeing the new Star Wars film. Jane’s behind-the-scenes connections to Star Wars are well-documented, as Portman, McGregor and Edgerton all appeared in the prequel trilogy. More significantly than that, the original Star Wars, which the new one tries so hard to imitate, was really just George Lucas’s reinvention of the western–an attempt to translate the familiar Good vs. Evil melodrama for a new generation.

The latest Star Wars tries to do this too, but fails badly on every level. Jane Got a Gun (while obviously not a film for children, because of the violence) succeeds in capturing this old-fashioned spirit.

Both films feature a Good vs. Evil plot with a strong heroine, a reluctant hero, and a cruel villain. But while Star Wars‘s Daisy Ridley and John Boyega fail in their attempts to portray the archetypes of “strong heroine” and “reluctant hero”, respectively; Portman and Edgerton play those same roles to perfection. McGregor, meanwhile, brings a chilling charisma to the villain’s role–exactly the sort of touch Adam Driver failed to give his cartoon bad guy in Star Wars.

Jane Got a Gun does not reinvent the Western by any means, but it certainly revives it admirably. The performances are all first-rate, and the pacing is terrific.  It is marketed as an action film, but there is plenty of romance and suspense as well, and the haunting desert landscape and soundtrack give it a very strong atmosphere.  Go see it.

Thor (2011) poster reproduced under Fair Use, via Wikipedia

I don’t care much for superhero movies.  The concept is boring to me.  I also don’t much care for Norse mythology, so Thor was pretty far down on the list of superhero movies I would want to see.  But Natalie Portman is my favorite actress, and she plays the eponymous hero’s love interest, so when it came on TV the other night, I figured I’d check it out.

The first thing that struck me was how bad the digital special effects were.  The city of Asgard, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and the rest of the Norse Gods live looks like the City from  The Wizard of Oz, only less believable.  The enemy creatures that Thor and his comrades fight early on looked pretty fake, and of course, the color palette was the standard blue and orange that I’ve blogged about before.

The first half hour of the movie was pretty tedious, with lots of comic-book fights and bad special effects. The essence of it was this: Thor is persuaded by his brother Loki to attack the enemy “Frost giants”, but it turns out to be a huge mistake, and Thor is banished and deemed unworthy to wield his hammer. He is forcibly cast out of Asgard and crashes in the New Mexico desert, his hammer landing not far away.

At this point, we leave the hokey special effects behind for the most part, and the movie turns into an enjoyable romance between Thor and Dr. Jane Foster, (Portman) an astrophysicist who observes him crashing to Earth after his banishment.

Against the advice of her colleague, Dr. Selvig, Jane takes Thor to the site where his hammer has crashed.  Meanwhile, Thor’s brother Loki is busy taking over Asgard while Odin is in a coma. (Or something. I had trouble following this part.) Loki, it becomes clear, has been orchestrating the whole thing to gain power.

Back on Earth, Thor tries but fails to pull the hammer out of the crater in which it is embedded.  It becomes clear that, per Odin’s command, he is not worthy to wield the hammer.  When this happens, Thor despairs and is taken into custody by government agents, who earlier had confiscated Jane’s scientific notes and equipment in order to study them.

Thor is rescued from them by Selvig, and is able to take back Jane’s notebook.  He and Jane then share a romantic interlude, after which Thor’s friends from Asgard return to let him know of Loki’s treachery.  Then Loki sends this big metal robot-soldier thing down to Earth to kill everyone.

Thor walks up to the robot and addresses Loki, asking him to spare the lives of Jane and her friends.  In exchange, he tells Loki to take his life.  The robot does so, and strikes Thor, knocking him to the ground.  But, as Jane kneels over the apparently dying Thor, the hammer comes soaring out of the ground and flies into his hand, transfiguring him into the God of Thunder.

I won’t lie; it’s a powerful moment.  Thor has become worthy, through sacrificing his life for his loved ones, to wield the hammer.  Of course, he revives and is able to fight off the robot.  He shares a passionate kiss with Jane before returning to Asgard to fight his treacherous brother.

Unfortunately, in the course of defeating Loki and waking Odin, Thor destroys the bridge between Asgard and Earth, meaning he and Jane are separated at the film’s end.  But it ends on a hopeful note, with a shot of Jane and her friends making progress in their research into the portals between realms, and Jane smiling as Thor does the same across the Universe.

As I said, I don’t like superhero movies, but this isn’t a typical superhero movie.  It was directed by the Shakespearean actor/director Sir Kenneth Branagh, and the Bard’s influence is quite clear.  You have a Prince struggling to be worthy of the throne, a usurper taking the throne from the rightful King, and intrigues that lead to wars between kingdoms.  It’s a strong, character-driven adventure story.  The chemistry between Portman and Hemsworth is spectacular, and the supporting characters all hit just the right notes.  The mood is light and adventurous, while still having some very powerful scenes. If you can get past the weak special effects, it’s a very enjoyable romp.