Movie Review: Jackie

Dissecting the wife of the first modern celebrity president to become martyred through assassination—President Kennedy—is the aim of leading actress Natalie Portman’s tragic horror movie, Jackie. A pretentious, arduous fictionalization it is, too. Jackie is as grisly as a horror movie and as maudlin as a Tennessee Williams play.

No one can accuse writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larrain of romanticizing the Kennedys, though the president’s widow as the film’s subject garners some degree of sympathy. This, too, may depend on one’s take on the grief-stricken housewife with no apparent passion for anything except perhaps vanity, proximity to the opposite sex and prestige by the estimates of others. This may have been part of the intended point of Jackie, which is meant to be unnerving and is often merely uninteresting.

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Beginning with a black screen, droning sounds and scattered shots of glimpses of the film’s three main focal points—the November 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas, a 1961 First Lady’s televised tour of the White House and a post-assassination meeting at the Kennedys’ property in Massachusetts—Jackie delves into dark moments. Given that it’s one of the most iconic, photographed presidencies, it’s hard not to want to watch what’s happening on screen, if for no other reason to match it up with famous pictures.

“I will be editing this conversation in case I don’t say exactly what I mean,” the First Lady tells an interviewer after the assassination in the movie’s framing device. In flashbacks to the deadly motorcade, hospital, Air Force One and the White House, the grieving widow’s lament comes in three arcs; before, during and after Dallas. It plays as a psychodrama, as Portman’s version of Jacqueline Kennedy sucks cigarettes, pops pills, melts down and confides, breathlessly wandering halls and rooms in her tidy little outfits like a battery-operated doll gone glitchy.

Jackie Kennedy was real and the movie that bears her name, enamored with her grief, hints at and shows nothing of what came before or after her White House Kennedy years, so there’s nothing about her Republican politics, interest in publishing or even much about what attracted her to her Catholic husband (whose presence in the movie is relegated to a few glimpses and a halting speech). The whole movie is overstyled, like a reality cable show’s recreation, focusing on the victim’s personality more than on pivot points in depicted events that define or recur over a lifetime (like The Queen, Lincoln or The Iron Lady). Jackie is moody, twitchy and awfully derivative. I do not think depicting a woman at her worst for nearly 90 consecutive minutes is inherently brilliant, however.

Jackie amounts to a re-enactment based on morbid curiosity. From scene to scene, certain tidbits emerge, from Mrs. Kennedy’s defense of guiding the White House tour, in which she finds “history, identity and beauty” in material possessions and points out that she funded restoration of the White House entirely through private donations to President Lincoln’s funeral as the impetus for her husband’s. The impressions soon fade amid more pill-popping than Valley of the Dolls, a distracting score, chain-smoking and a brutal portrayal of a shallow, unstable woman. “I used to make them smile,” she says to a priest (John Hurt, V for Vendetta) after asking what men will think of her now.

Add scenes with the kids and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) as the closest Jackie has to villains other than the grieving widow herself and her late husband, whose flaws are suggested, never named. As Mrs. John Kennedy, Portman is affected, overly mannered and sincere. As a journalist, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) is flat, though this may be the way the role is written and it’s hard to tell because the journalist behaves less as a journalist and more as a sycophant.

For all the pageantry and re-enactment, the majesty Jackie apparently believes it exhibits only holds if you think celebrity has majesty (it doesn’t), if only for one brief shining moment. Jackie feels, however, like one, long gauzy eternity, at once both fawning and cruel to the woman who later made a career for herself independent of men. When the priest to whom Jackie Kennedy confides finally tells her that one can’t ever really know anything, anyway, and that, upon realizing this truth, most people accept it as true, kill themselves or stop seeking answers, I knew in that instant that this is what Jackie is really made to say. Sadly, it’s all that Jackie‘s made to say.

Oliver Stone’s JFK

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With the first of two Kennedy assassinations all over the airwaves, and the media cashing in on the 50th anniversary of an American president’s murder, I decided to finally see JFK (1991) starring Kevin Costner.

I’ve limited my exposure to the films of director Oliver Stone. His political philosophy is repulsive — he embraces dictators — so his pictures hardly seemed worth the aggravation. During my tenure at Box Office Mojo, I reported on and reviewed two of his movies, World Trade Center, which dramatizes the monstrous view that there’s an upside to mass murder, and Alexander, a mediocre movie about Alexander the Great which was wrongly ridiculed in the press and turned out to have some very good moments.

So does JFK, which screened at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood with a pre-screening appearance by Stone. As truth-telling, it is dubious, though I am not an expert on the death of John Kennedy and I defer to those who are. As a movie, JFK is, like Alexander, nearly unwatchable in parts. Stone’s frantic emotionalism runs amok, delivering fits, starts and half-starts, more fits, then flashes and fragments, especially during the first hour of this three-hour film.

But in parts it is thought-provoking. Beginning with a speech by President Eisenhower warning about the rise of the “military-industrial complex,” JFK wraps the assassination in a Louisiana lawyer’s (Costner) investigation of a crooked and apparently closeted homosexual (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln) who, it is claimed, was an agent of the CIA assigned in conspiracy to plot the murder. JFK grows more insistent. It climaxes in a recreation of the assassination complete with graphic, rarely seen photographs and a courtroom speech by Costner’s character that could have been made by someone in today’s Tea Party. The attorney makes a case and urges the jury to doubt the government, asking: “Is the government worth preserving when it lies to the people?”

It’s a legitimate question, particularly as we near pre-dictatorship and government, led by a president whom we now know is a liar, plots to spy on Americans. There are other moments, too, if one does not take JFK as documentary. With the appearance of Donald Sutherland as a government worker who goes rogue to tell the truth, JFK takes an interesting if implausible turn toward an argument against “just following orders.” The film’s thesis that President Kennedy was killed by factions in government that wanted him out of the way because he wanted peace in Vietnam is less persuasive than doubts it raises about Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) as the lone assassin on November 22, 1963.

I remain unconvinced by Stone’s hyper-drama, which entails circuitous connections of gays, Cubans, addicts, mafia, crooked cops and criminals to three teams that pummeled Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally with bullets as the motorcade passed a plaza in downtown Dallas. At its best, the film, which preposterously compares the assassination to the Crucifixion, raises questions about what Oswald the Communist did and why. It’s hard to keep track of the facts crammed into this movie — with Joe Pesci’s wig all over his head to distraction and everyone swearing like it’s a Tarantino picture — and some of JFK is as campy as one should expect from a leftist filmmaker who cavorts with Communist regimes. But it’s also hard to ignore that the lawyer who believed that Kennedy was assassinated by his own government was a real man named Jim Garrison who was targeted by the IRS, like today’s Tea Party, and electronically bugged by the FBI.

The most interesting scene predates a similar scene in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 pacifist apologia, Munich. The scene comes when Costner’s husband-father-crusader Garrison realizes that a key part of his theory is proven right. His doubting wife (Sissy Spacek, excellent as ever) realizes he’s right, too. As she does, she feels liberated. As Garrison’s partial vindication comes — and most rational Americans should be able to relate to this now — he is struck with horror, feeling deep fear and a suddenly acute awareness of reality at once. Garrison is transformed into the husband he hasn’t been. It’s a powerful scene, done with an intimacy that draws back until the camera holds on a shot which allows the audience to observe a more innocent place and time in American history. It’s a subtle flip on the myth that America lost her innocence when Kennedy was shot; the best Americans sobered up and doubled down on their bountiful benevolence.

“Do your own thinking,” someone urges during JFK, which ultimately lets the viewer do exactly that. If Stone’s overzealous filmmaking gets the best of his movie, as it almost always does, it’s not without poignant scenes and passion for his subject.

Of course, JFK‘s subject is JFK’s assassination, not John F. Kennedy, contrary to the movie’s title. If it were, we’d see that President Kennedy rightly considered himself a lousy president, that he admired fascism (as I wrote here) and conspired to let the 20th century’s bloodiest dictatorship enslave millions of people (as I observed when I read and reviewed this book on the Berlin Wall). Stone is primarily invested here in making a display of his subjectivism, making facts fit his thesis. That’s Oliver Stone. But A is A, facts are facts and there’s still something to think about in his mixed JFK.

When he introduced his movie this week at the Cinerama Dome, Stone made reference to the Church committee in Congress, which foresaw today’s leaps toward totalitarianism. He referred to Arlen Specter, the late Democrat senator from Pennsylvania who was a young lawyer on the government’s Warren Commission investigating the assassination, as “one of the greatest villains of our history.” And Stone denounced our commander-in-chief, the most anti-American president in history, which Stone does on a regular basis. That’s more than most professed idealists bring themselves to do. So the notion that there’s a conspiracy within the government to turn the government into a omnipotent power isn’t just coming from the Tea Party and, as President Eisenhower warned, it is a serious threat to liberty. Especially with the military apparently being purged by Obama.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, goes the saying. People who think America is becoming a dictatorship by deliberate, systematic steps shouldn’t dismiss everything by Oliver Stone, who told the favorably disposed audience — in answer to a question about whether he thinks that he, too, has been marked for death by the state — that he “wouldn’t mind getting out of here pretty soon.”

America is mixed. America is in trouble. America no longer protects individual liberty. In Stone’s mixed, troubled and totalitarian-friendly thoughts, he may have a sense that we’re going down and want to stop it. If so, as warped as his political philosophy is, that’s better than one who knows better and does nothing about what he knows.

Well-crafted, well-written movies are being made — The Lives of Others, The King’s Speech, The Artist  — and JFK is not one of them. More often than not, the market is filled with asinine movies that degrade the culture at a crucial time when the West is coming to an end. JFK, to its credit, is thankfully not one of those. Because, like Alexander, it deals with an issue that matters, it is better than most movies.

The Truth About President Kennedy

“I’d rather my children red than dead,” President Kennedy told a young White House virgin whom he had summoned for sex, during the so-called Cuban missile crisis, according to the New York Post‘s account of a new book, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath by Mimi Alford. Ms. Alford claims that she was a teen-aged intern who was invited to swim and expected to have sex with the President, Democrat John Kennedy, which she did, and that over the years of their affair she was also subjected to various forms of humiliation including being forced to consume what was probably amyl nitrate and asked to have sex with a Kennedy aide and a Kennedy relative (Ted). The book goes on sale this month.

None of this is surprising. As I recently observed, in posts about Richard Nixon and the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy, who has been sold as a great statesman, especially by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, was a shifty character and seriously deficient president who was an advocate of government control of economics and communications. If Ms. Alford’s charges are true – and I suspect they are – they add to the evidence that Kennedy was a flawed American president.

According to a piece on Slate, Ms. Alford’s identity was first revealed in 2003 in Robert Dallek’s published portions of a 1964 oral history in which the liaisons were described. Slate – hardly part of a vast, right-wing conspiracy – reports that the New York Daily News then found someone who confirmed JFK’s affair with the teen-aged subordinate. Slate notes that Time magazine’s late White House columnist, Hugh Sidey, who covered the Kennedy administration, wrote in Time that “there was a Mimi,” adding that “there was also a Pam, a Priscilla, a Jill (actually, two of them), a Janet, a Kim, a Mary and a Diana I can think of offhand.”

Given what we know of the sordid history of the Kennedys – their backroom deals, crimes and affinity for fascism – not to mention countless indiscretions, it is long past time the press and their puppet-masters in politics and government stop ignoring and distorting the truth. They should drop the pretense that JFK was a great president and start accounting for his actions. Ultimately, historians will judge the Kennedy family’s legacy on the merits of their ideals in action: trying to force Hollywood moguls to remove Jewish names from film credits to placate Nazis, allowing Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall, refusing to enforce the law on behalf of Americans who are black, creating military disasters including bringing the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war, and creating socialized medicine and HMOs.

The record speaks for itself without new disclosures which confirm what the press already knew: that they also used power to take advantage of those without power. Better red than dead – the opposite of Patrick Henry’s Give me liberty or give me death! – was more or less the Kennedy presidency motto; that it apparently was confirmed by a 19-year-old who lost her innocence to a power-lusting president (who indiscriminately used his power for lust) ought not to shock anyone, least of all the media. Let’s not hear anymore of this Camelot nonsense, except as a warning against media complicity in propagating the government’s lies.