Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Jackie (2017) - Movie Review

Okay, quick bit of context. Earlier in the year, I got picked up by a website called Screenhall; the guy who runs the site contacted me in the comments for one of my reviews and I started writing some reviews for them. However, it's only in the last couple weeks that I discovered something: Screenhall has kind of... vanished. Since those reviews make up part of the lists for 2017, and I don't really like the idea of just leaving all that work in the dust, I'm going to repost them here for your enjoyment. They're formatted a little differently than my usual writing, but it's still me writing them; you can decide for yourself if that's a good thing or not. So, yeah, time for some reposting, starting here with Jackie.

Release Date: 12 January 2017 (AUS)
Genre: Biographical, Drama
Director: Pablo LarraĆ­n
Writer: Noah Oppenheim
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Caspar Phillipson, Greta Gerwig

Plot: Following the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie has to prepare for not only her late husband’s funeral proceedings but also the arrival of the next president Lyndon Johnson. Framed around Theodore H. White’s interview with her for TIME magazine, we see Jackie trying to come to terms with her bereavement and her still-publicized life, especially in the wake of the event.

Acting: Natalie Portman has never struck me as a particularly noteworthy actor, and in fairness her feigned New York mannerisms take some time to get used to. But once that learning curve passes, she seriously delivers the raw and utterly unnerving emotion the role requires of her, contrasting her life with her husband to the tempest brewing in the wake of his death.

Alongside her for the majority of the film is Peter Sarsgaard, who brings a more emphatically emotional edge to Portman’s more quietly tortured demeanour and the two make for a very good team-up in their scenes. Billy Crudup gives a good journalistic detachment to his wraparound scenes interviewing Jackie, John Carroll Lynch gives a small but still well-grounded turn as President Johnson, Richard E. Grant gives a lot of immediacy to one of the more crucial scenes involving taking inspiration from Lincoln’s funeral procession when planning Kennedy’s, and John Hurt, without coming across as too preachy, exudes a real holistic and comforting air to his scenes where Jackie is seeking religious guidance.

Liked: The story structure, while jumbled, keeps a lot of focus when it comes to Jackie’s place within it. Given how easily this could have descended into another depiction of a great woman who only has relevance in relation to a great man, Portman does a great job at keeping everything centred where it should be. It probably helps that this film, rather fittingly given the events depicted, is very, very depressing. A lot of it revolves around the stages of grief and continuing on with life in spite of it, something that the entire production seems to be on the same level with. In terms of overall production, the film makes plentiful use of actual historical footage of Jackie and her husband, cutting between archived news footage and the scenes including Natalie et al. With how much these sorts of biopics end up toeing the line between fiction and the reality that it’s based on, this approach ends up doing wonders for this film’s credibility as a look into recent history.

Composer Mica Levi gives us one of the most distinctive soundtracks I’ve heard in a film in a long while with this one, putting a lot of effort into creating an appropriately melancholy soundscape for what is shown on screen. It largely comprises of orchestral elements with an emphasis on string sections, as well as a few iterations of the titular song from the musical Camelot which itself has strong ties to the story of JFK. It carries the emotion well through-and-through, but once the strings really kick in is when things start to reach their apex. It’s rare that I’ll use the term “stomach-churning” as a compliment, but with how the strings bend and warp to fit Jackie’s mindset in certain scenes, there’s really no other way to describe them and the effect is definitely unique amongst the usual biopic fare.

Not that this film is all feels and no brains, however, and it’s here where Jackie’s character truly shines. Now, the Kennedy legacy is something truly ingrained in American culture so, as an Australian, I can’t speak too much in terms of accuracy or fidelity to the time period. Thankfully, it seems that Jackie has done all the historical legwork for us as, through her understanding of the presidents of old, we see how much she cares about how her husband will be remembered; would he go down alongside the greats like Lincoln, or would he just be thrown to the wayside like the majority of men to hold that place in office? Sure, with the gift of hindsight, we know that the Kennedy name and political dynasty lives on even today, but getting a snapshot of the initial worries in the moment definitely helps bring the point home.

Disliked: I said that this film is incredibly downbeat, and while that is certainly fitting given the time frame, it can often become a little too overwhelming because the entire film pretty much exists within this mood. It’s a very heavy and dark cloud that wafts through the production, and even as someone who likes his movies to be good and depressing, this ends up feeling like it’s wallowing in its own misery for the sake of pathos. I get that events like these shouldn’t be treated like a screwball caper, but there must have been a way to show Jackie’s grieving process without it feeling this one-note; just a little bit of levity would have made this a lot easier to sit through.

There’s also how JFK himself is depicted within the film. While Caspar Phillipson portrays the late president physically, he doesn’t end up saying anything himself. The one scene where his character gets dialogue, it’s spoken through another instance of archive footage with the sound overlayed onto his performance; again, it gives a nice realistic aesthetic to the overall film. The assassination scene, on the other hand, is far more problematic. When dealing with real-life tragedies like this, filmmakers often have to be extremely careful so as not to be exploitative of the events when depicting them on screen, and this film gets dangerously close to that area with how it’s shown. It’s incredibly graphic, right down to a scene where Jackie has to wash his blood off her face right after the shooting, and the way the assassination ends up bookending the film does bring to mind certain notions concerning just how much should be shown here. It does add to the mournful air of the rest of the film, which given its prevalence can be debated in its own right, but it just doesn’t sit right when taken alongside everything else we see.

Final Thoughts: While I may take certain issues with how certain acts are portrayed on screen, along with the never-ending sorrowful tone of the production, the acting, writing and especially the music end up carrying it through very nicely. Portman’s acting takes a little bit to get used to, but by film’s end, she more than makes her mark as one of the most legendary First Ladies in American history.

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