Thursday, January 5, 2017

A WIDOW CULTIVATES A LEGACY: a review of "Jackie"

Screenplay Written by Noah Oppenheim
Directed by Pablo Larrain
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Early into my afternoon screening of Director Pablo Larrain's captivating, unorthodox "Jackie," I quickly realized that I have never heard the sound of former First Lady, the late Jackie Kennedy's speaking voice.

This was a most intriguing discovery wile viewing a most intriguing film because this particular revelation made me ponder precisely other prominent to the point of being iconic world figures that seem so familiar but are indeed so terribly remote that it is as if you never knew them whatsoever--only the persona you had created for yourself.

For instance, when Diana, Princess Of Wales died from her car crash in 1997 and footage from her life began flooding the new s airwaves, it was that moment when I realized that I had never heard her voice before. And for that matter, I hadn't heard Prince Charles' voice either. It was fascinating to me how international figures so present, so ubiquitous, so known, so to speak, were truthfully so unknown. Therefore, how could time and history regard people such as these figures? Would they be real or just interpretations based upon the perceptions of the public and have nothing to do with the individual's actual state of being?

Pablo Larrain's "Jackie" provides a compelling window into its iconic subject matter but not through anything resembling a stately biopic. In a fashion like Bill Pohlad's "Love And Mercy" (2014), which focused upon two periods in the life of Brian Wilson and Don Cheadle's defiantly unorthodox "Miles Ahead" from earlier in 2016, which focused on one turbulent period in the life of Miles Davis, Larrain's "Jackie" utilizes the short period after President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination as a leaping off point to explore the inner world of Jackie Kennedy and her attempts to secure and ultimately cultivate the public and therefore, historical legacy of her husband as well as herself and completely under her own terms.

Truth be told, considering the subject matter, I really did not think that this film would be of any interest to me. But thankfully, after hearing some strong reviews on the radio, I took the risk and was exceedingly impressed with this unusual yet superbly haunting presentation which carries another startling, complete performance by Natalie Portman as the titular figure. Trust me, dear readers. I know that technicolor musicals and return trips to a galaxy far, far away are taking up nearly all of the attention but as with Denzel Washington's excellent "Fences," here is yet another decidedly adult feature filled with insightful, compelling, and provocative performances and concepts that is more than demanding of your attention and valuable. I gently urge you to carve out a space to see this particularly gripping film.

As previously stated, "Jackie" stars Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, the First Lady, reeling from her nightmarishly front row seat to her husband's assassination and the moments, minutes, hours and days and short time thereafter that followed where she not only tends to plan her husband's funeral, procession and burial, console her two young children, vacate the White House to make room for the impending Johnson administration but to also utilize this tragedy as her starting point in solidifying the legacy which the couple had begun as the nation's First Family. Working within a non-linear narrative, the film possesses the central focal point of an interview between Jackie Kennedy and an unnamed journalist (portrayed by Billy Crudup) for an unnamed publication (although this piece of the film is supposedly based upon political journalist Theodore H.White's interview with Kennedy for LIFE magazine).

Pablo Larrain's"Jackie" takes the unquestionable national tragedy and its aftermath and transforms it into an intimate, psychologically complex film that explores the nature of public and private personalities and personas and the greater concepts of who is allowed to lay claim to your story in its creation, execution and longevity. This is an unconventional film (Composer Mica Levi's disturbing score deserves a most special mention), a film that is peculiar and ornate yet decidedly sharp and savvy. One where the epic is interior, a veritable hall of mirrors (perhaps signifying Larrain's distinct motif of having the film's Jackie Kennedy often facing her reflection) as our own memories and impressions of the real Jackie Kennedy and therefore, our notions of celebrity are reflected back towards us to a sometimes disturbing degree.

At the outset of this review, mentioned that I realized that I had no idea of what Jackie Kennedy even sounded like. All I have ever had to go n regarding her history has been her image, so pristine, obviously attractive, so fashionable with that pillbox hat all the while merged with her climbing towards the hood of her car in that horrific motorcade. I really had never carried any real impression of who she may have been and therefore, I have harbored no real connection. Jackie Kennedy has solely been an American cultural figure, an untouchable, unknowable image that perhaps even the idea of her having a signature sound to her voice felt equally unattainable.

And right away, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy began to speak and I was instantly struck with the strange sounding timbre. So breathy and fragile with that almost weird sounding and downright untraceable accent. Did the real woman really sound like that? Did anyone ever really sound like that? I have to say that upon returning home from the film, I went straight to You Tube to see if I would be able to locate any archived footage and sure enough, there it was: "A Tour Of The White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy" which ran as a television special in 1962. Within mere moments, I heard the real voice of Jackie Kennedy and I was thunderstruck at how perfectly Portman captured a sound that still just felt so alien. Believe me, in this regard, Natalie Portman completely nailed it!

That being said, Natalie Portman's full performance is by no means solely an exercise in imitation. On the contrary, she delves as deeply psychologically as she did with her towering, harrowing work in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" (2010), but this time  her performances is a complex myriad of subtle shadings rather than existing as something operatic or overtly unhinged. Again, I return to the sound of the voice as Portman's Jackie Kennedy is depicted as one who deftly utilized her voice in a variety of fashions depending upon with whom she was speaking. On the aforementioned television special (which is lavishly re-created within Larrain's film), Jackie Kennedy is coy and coquettish. Yet, when dealing with the rapidly ongoing and even mounting political pressures of Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), JFK's successor President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and political consultant Jack Valenti (Max Casella), that soft spoken timbre remains yet she is formidable in presence and force.

Further still, in the interview sequences between herself and the journalist, Jackie remains soft spoken, yes. But these sequences are tense, quietly combative and politely contentious, as there exists a certain power struggle that speaks to the hands of journalism slowly relinquishing its control in pursuit of the scoop (especially with the rising presence and influence of television) whereas for Jackie Kennedy, it is entirely about controlling the public perceptions rather than having it controlled and ultimately, personally erecting and directing the legacy set in motion by her husband and herself. I particularly loved the moment when Jackie challenges her interviewer by proclaiming that she already knows precisely why he is at her Massachusetts abode for this particular interview--he wants to capture what it was like for he to hear the bullet hitting her husband's skull while riding in the motorcade. He attempts to suggest otherwise and then, Jackie begins to slowly, evocatively and tearfully spill her deepest emotions concerning those fateful moments upon November 22, 1963. Yet, once finished, her tone turns icy when she states with finality, "You don't expect me to let you print that do you?"

Pablo Larrain's "Jackie" and Natalie Portman's performance in particular is a riveting examination of perceptions both public and private with that signature voice also alerting the audience to her state of mind plus her overall intentions depending upon whom she was surrounded by, from her inner circle to the eyes and ears of the nation itself, or even those seemingly rare moments when she was entirely alone surrounded by the fractured solitude of her own consciousness.

One could never really know the complete inner world of Jackie Kennedy other than the woman herself but Larrain performs a striking task by depicting several sequence when Jackie Kennedy is indeed alone and we indeed are forced to infer what could possibly be fueling her drive, propelling her to continue when so many of us would crumble on the spot. Scenes where she is washing the blood of her husband from her skin. Or when she is disrobing from the blood and brain stained clothes of that day. Or another sequence when she is packing her belongings from the White House while inexplicably listening to a cast album recording of the Richard Burton starring "Camelot" (released December 12, 1960) of all things. Or also taking in a White House performance while wearing a completely impenetrable visage.

Yes...that is the word to describe the characterization of Jackie Kennedy that I witnessed in Larrain's film: Impenetrable. Yet, trust me dear readers, it is not impenetrable to a frustrating or even to a pointless degree.  I think what Pablo Larrain and definitely Natalie Portman have tried to achieve and convey is a portrait of a figure who was indeed impenetrable as she was forced into existing as a variety of different people as different people all the while being housed inside of one woman, who incidentally happened to not only be the First Lady but the third youngest woman at that time to have ever held that title.

Jackie Kennedy was indeed a woman caught in the throes of an unthinkable experience and yet, Larrain argues with his film, she was steadfast, formidable and perhaps even just that unhinged enough to move forwards while refusing to reveal her cards, to fully give herself away personally or psychologically. To think, here she was literally holding her husband's skull together and metaphorically holding the lives of her family and I would gather her sanity together single-handedly while creating the lasting record before someone else did it for her.

How does one even exist in that specialized of a fishbowl? Who is allowed to write the story of one's life when you happen to be an extraordinary public figure? With that question in mind, what is indeed the truth? All of those concepts regarding the nature of the truth, especially with the rise of television, should speak volumes in the 21st century as we are now existing in what is being referred to by some as a "post-truth" era in the dawn of Donald Trump, where reality is whatever you wish for it to be within any given moment, logic, reason and facts be damned.

Pablo Larrain's "Jackie" speaks directly to those themes plus the nature of celebrity, controversy and even the elaborate designs of legacies and myth making. Is Larrain arguing that Jackie Kennedy herself bought into the mythology of her family's perception as American royalty or did she assist greatly in its original conception, all the while playing puppet master over the populace and the press?

"Jackie" is mesmerizing filmmaking and storytelling. Absolutely fascinating to ponder and often exquisitely gripping to view.

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