Sunday, December 11, 2016

A STEELY WOMAN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Natalie Portman as JACKIE (copyright 2016)

JACKIE very well may be the film of the year. It certainly contains the female performance of 2016 in Natalie Portman's portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy. And it’s truly one of the most unsettling experiences to be had in a movie theater in some time. JACKIE, which opened this weekend, is a revelatory and intimate movie biography, blending fact and conjecture about the life of the First Lady in the days and weeks following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. It is presented as practically a fever dream, a glimpse into the actions and motivations of Jackie during those fateful days. And it stands as one of the most devastating portraits of a public person ever shown on the big screen, her story both horrifying and moving as a tale of unfathomable grief.

At times, it is so harrowing to watch, it could almost be a horror movie. Its edgy score by Mica Levi, full of dissonant chords and violins tumbling down the scale, certainly would be at home in any film in the genre. And the graphic violence portraying the President’s death is as jolting as any scare on the big screen these days. Mostly though, it’s this film’s profound sense of unease and dread that gives it such a horror vibe. Some of Jackie’s anguish is so palpable, you’ll want to shield your eyes behind your hands.

But look we must as this movie presents an unflinching study of the agony she went through, not just on that fateful November 22 in Dallas of ‘63, but in the aftermath. Her world was turned upside down by the murder of her husband, yet even more horrors were  in store as she had to arrange his state funeral, pack up her belongings and vacate the White House, and mother her confused children, all the while fighting the incoming administration for some common courtesy and respect for her husband’s legacy. It’s all shown here, much of it based on fact, some of it suggested by testimony and first-hand accounts, but it’s all devastating to watch as Jackie is turned inside out and pulled this way and that.

Because she’s an icon, it’s all too easy to forget the person that Jackie was during those tumultuous days. She had witnessed her husband’s head being blown half-off just inches away and indeed could have been easily murdered along with him in the back seat of that presidential limousine. Such an event would level most, but Jackie’s pain was just beginning. From there, her stress only compounded as LBJ’s cronies were anxious to move her out, move the country past the tragedy, and prove to Russia that there was no lapse in American leadership. The film takes an unflinching look at those events too and how Jackie was victimized all over again. It’s not a pretty picture.

This film is as much political commentary as character study, miles away from any straight biopic. Much of what is presented is historical, but much of it is conjecture by the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Lorrain for the sake of insight into the woman and the times. For starters, Oppenheim’s script uses a framing device that has Jackie being interviewed by a journalist. The character is not Theodore White, the actual American news correspondent who famously interviewed the Former First Lady in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Here, the writer is a fictional one, known merely in the credits as “The Journalist.” He’s played by Billy Crudup and his character takes a sarcastic bent towards Jackie’s efforts to state her case and set the record straight of her husband’s presidency and their time in the White House. Despite his cynical approach, she will make her case.

Granted, much of what Oppenheim writes is historically accurate, and even the essence of her feelings and words are grounded in testimony from those who knew Jackie best. But make no mistake, this is hardly an A to B narrative, and it takes a very distinct POV in its presentation of the First Lady and how the presidential power structure treated her so shabbily. It is a political commentary really, as well as a horror film in its way, and Chilean director Pablo Lorrain directs it as an arthouse mood piece as well. The cinematography, shot by Stepane Fontaine, and the non-linear editing of Sebastian Sepulveda, create a free-form cinematic experience that plays like the thoughts and memories of Jackie’s mind bumping into each other out of sequence. The camera stays very close on Portman’s face the entire film, giving all of it an even more personal brainstorm sensibility, one that can at times be almost unbearably intimate. We experience every thought, fear and emotion Jackie struggled with, making this film at times feel like a virtual reality tour of her torn mindset.

Lorrain creates one stunning image after another to do so. He shows the throngs of people reflected over her face in the car window glass as she passes them on the ride to Arlington to bury her husband. And when she is packing away her expensive fashionista wardrobe, he has his main character toss them around as if throwing her children’s old and forgotten toys in a box for Goodwill. Every shot in this film is considered and designed like that, a veritable Rorschach test of what was going on in the First Lady’s psyche. It may be the most stunningly photographed and designed film of the year.

One of Lorrain’s most adroit images is when he shows Jackie trembling and crying as she wipes her face clean of the blood and brain spatter from her husband (Caspar Phillipson), making herself presentable for the swearing in of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) aboard Air Force One. She’s looking in a three-way mirror, just as she did earlier in the film, when she was shown adjusting her pink pillbox hat while readying herself for the Dallas visit. The irony of juxtaposing those two separate moments with similar camera shots plays as maddeningly macabre, and yet incredibly poignant too.

Often, Larrain has Fontaine simply keep his lens tight on Portman’s face. Jackie is no enigma here. She is not the stoic and classy icon so often rendered in other movies and television presentations, but rather a flesh and blood person, humanized and made mortal by the tradedy. We witness every reaction of hers up close and personal in this film, from watching her husband die in her lap, to being condescended to by LBJ’s fast-moving movers and shakers, anxious to redo the White House in the Texan’s image. Her tussles with brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), who was also JFK’s Attorney General, present him as both friend and foil. She is thankful for his concern for her safety, but disgusted by his preoccupation with his standing in Washington, post-assassination. Larrain’s casting of Sarsgaard was shrewd, as he often plays heavies, and here his permanent scowl gives a unique spin over other screen versions of RFK.

There are other tests on Jackie’s patience too, and Oppenheim, Larrain, and star Portman make the most of them. It’s darkly comic when Jackie battles with LBJ aide and sycophant Jack Valenti (Max Casella) over proper funeral arrangements and office assignments. The film bluntly condemns such haste and power grabs by Johnson and his Cold Warriors. Have they no shame? No, they didn’t.

It’s a tasking role to be in virtually every scene, but Portman knocks it out of the park. If you thought she’d never top her paranoid triumph in BLACK SWAN, see how Oscar-worthy she is again this time too. Not only does she conjure endless fathoms of fear and vulnerability, but she aces all the imitation intricacies needed to convince an audience that she’s Jackie. Portman doesn’t look much like her, but she captures the strange Mid-Atlantic accent, an odd blend of American English and British Received Pronunciation, without doing a straight impersonation of it. And Portman seems taller and more mature than she ever has been on camera before in the role. Particularly impressive is how well she aces the recreation of “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” that the First Lady hosted in 1962. It’s one of the only humorous moments in the film, but Portman easily earns the chuckles in the audience.

Lorrain hails from Chile and yet he truly understands the nuances of the head games powerful men play in Washington politics. Interesting how directors from foreign lands so often understand America so clearly. Austrian Billy Wilder skewered Tinsel Town with acidic wit in 1950’s SUNSET BOULEVARD, and Czech Milos Forman’s indicted our penchant for ostracizing outsiders in 1975’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’s NEST. Lorrain too knows how to sting with similar indictments of the USA. He shows the thin-skin and selfish myopia of those lusting for power, like LBJ, a man who cannot bear being told to do anything by anyone, or the two-facedness of his wife Lady Bird (Beth Grant) acting outwardly sympathetic to Jackie, while briskly working behind-the-scenes to push her out of the living quarters. Lorrain sees it all with an unfettered and unsentimental eye. And he creates a very unflattering portrait of these American leaders.

He even slams Jackie at times for her selfishness. She pumps up the myth of Kennedy and Camelot to create more of a greater legacy than her husband deserved. And Larrain indicts her for letting slide her knowledge of Jack's wandering eye. Lorrain also doesn’t shirk from showing how much Jackie smoked, or how she wandered the hallways in a half-drunk stupor, wine glass almost spilling over, as she medicated herself to take the edge off her grief. Even her refusal to change out of her bloodied clothing after Dallas, to show the American people “what they did to my husband”, comes with a clear suggestion from the director that Jackie wasn’t above the metaphorical middle finger. But who can blame her after her husband was so brutally gunned down in public?

Yet, at the end of it all, even with the showcasing of her warts and all, Jackie comes off here as someone even more worthy of admiration than previously earned. She was not only strong but downright steely during those tremendously trying times, standing up for herself when no one else would. And the film puts forth the argument that the way Jackie handled the state funeral and the aftermath of her husband’s death was what truly helped America heal. It even goes so far as to suggest that she may be the reason the Kennedy’s are thought of so fondly. Her strength burnished their legacy as well as her own.

And make no mistake, this film excoriates the petty and amoral ‘game of thrones’ that is American politics. Our short-sighted government is taken to the wood shed, as is the electorate for our short attention spans. There would be no return to normal after the Kennedy assassination, just as any attempt to normalize the transition of power in our modern times is wishful thinking too. JACKIE is not just a scorched earth character study, an ersatz horror film, and a fevered biopic, it’s a shockingly timely commentary on our nation in mid-transition. Mrs. Kennedy wouldn’t just go along and bury her head in the sand for ‘the good of the country.’ Can the same be said of our nation right now, even with all the evidence of Russia’s hacks, increasingly dangerous President-elect Tweet storms, and the continued bullying and prejudices furthering the divide amongst our people?

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