Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, February 11, 2017

OSCAR 2017: Jackie (2016)

Americans are fond of romanticizing their president. I'm sure – assuming this country survives the next four-to-eight years – there will even be people looking back fondly on the Trump administration. No U.S. President has been more romanticized then John F. Kennedy. In-between his good looks, associated with the end of a more innocent time in this country, and sudden death, JFK is a towering figure in American history. But what of his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy? She's nearly as mythic a figure as her husband, beloved by romantics and tabloid journalists. Pablo Lerrain's “Jackie” seeks to lend some agency and insight into the most traumatic days of Kennedy's life. Typically, such a project attracted award season attention yet Lerrain's film is more then your average biopic.

The screenplay by Noah Oppenheim features an intentionally fractured plot construction. A week after the assassination of John. F. Kennedy, Jacqueline gives a somewhat combative interviewed to a journalist writing for Life magazine. The film flashes between the immediate hours following John's murder, the transition of power in the White House that forced Jackie and the kids out, the complicated process involved in arranging Kennedy's funeral service. Mixed in are more distant memories of a televised tour of the White House Jackie recorded and an intense conversation Jackie had with her priest.

By arranging this fictional retelling of real life events in such a way, Lerrain accurately captures the mindset of someone who has survived a traumatic event. Jacqueline is in a bad mood during the framing device, chain smoking throughout the interview. Memories of her husband's violent murder interrupt her recollections. John's death, unsurprisingly, comprises the most unnerving moments in “Jackie.” Yet Lerrain doesn't just linger on the way Oswalt's bullet burst Kennedy's head or the blood and brain matter that splattered Jackie O.'s face. The aftermath of the assassination, when Kennedy finally realizes that her husband's blood is still in her hair, are equally disquieting. Moreover, the novel narrative structure also brings to mind how everyone remembers events, recent and otherwise. It's not a clear, concise line of recollections. Events jumble together.

The aspect of “Jackie” to receive the most attention, especially from the Academy, is Natalie Portman's lead performance. At first, the Bostonian accent Portman adopts is slightly distracting. Yet this isn't the only reason Portman's more quiet moments are her most compelling. The most chilling moment in “Jackie” has the First Lady returning home after the murder. She slips out of her bloodied clothes, downs some pills, and puts on a record. She silently weeps as the camera watches her despondently go from room to room. Portman remains in a similar state throughout most of the movie. She plays the historical First Lady as someone barely holding together, a storm of constant emotional upheaval conveyed in her eyes, only hinting at the chaos Jackie must have felt. It's a fantastic performance and, dare I say, superior to the performance that won Portman her previous Oscar.

The focus is squarely on Jacqueline Kennedy and what she was feeling during those dark days. Yet her interaction with men in power occupies large portions of the run time. The Secret Service agents, who remind her that she is no longer the President's wife, bristles against her constantly changing plans concerning Kennedy's funeral service. Some of the most bracing moments in “Jackie” concerns the First Lady's long conversations with her priest. The priest, played by the great John Hurt, attempts to reassure her of god's role in the universe despite the pain Jackie feels over a murdered husband and two stillborn children. (As I write this, the news of John Hurt's passing is still in the air, lending these scenes even more importance.) An especially memorable sequence has Jackie talking with Robert Kennedy in the Lincoln Bedroom. In addition to drawing attention to the often cited parallels between Kennedy and Lincoln, it shows both individuals struggling with their pain and how history will see the Kennedy administration.

“Jackie” also contends itself with the immediate fall-out of the Kennedys as cultural icons. The film's entire point is to humanize Jacqueline Kennedy, to show the trauma, fear, and pain she felt immediately following the President's death. The interview draws much attention to the difference between the poised, flawless public figure she projected and the sad, scared person she actually was. Yet she concludes the interview by bringing up the famous parallel between the Kennedy administration and the fictional Camelot. This moment, seemingly, solidifies the Kennedy presidency in American history. In its final minutes, Jackie watches as a clothing store dresses the mannequins in its front window in her famous dresses and pillbox hats. The implication seems to be that the real people involved will be swallowed up by history.

By focusing in on a specific moment in history, and giving personal feelings and thoughts the most attention, “Jackie” provides a more intimate peek into the life of the Kennedys then an ordinarily structured biopic would. Pablo Larrain's intimate direction, Mica Levi's intense score, and Portman's nuanced lead performance combined to make an emotional, touching film that grapples with history and, perhaps more importantly, the people who make it. [8/10]

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