Jackie, directed by Pablo Larraín, 1hr 40min
Seared into our collective minds is the assassination of President Kennedy. We know where we were when we first heard about it. We watched the TV coverage, from Walter Cronkite fighting to regain his composure to the little boy we knew as John-John saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin.
And to many of us Jacqueline Kennedy will always symbolize what it means to be the First Lady: charm and style, then grace and courage in the face of this terrible tragedy.
Jackie, the movie, depicts the complicated woman behind the icon in the excruciating days after the assassination. She smokes, she demands, she manipulates, but there is always vulnerability. This film succeeds because it presents all these facets of a woman we mainly know through television and pictures in magazines.
Natalie Portman, while certainly not a dead-ringer for Jackie, skillfully portrays her many sides. In her voice there is the familiar breathiness, but also a noticeable lisp. When necessary, the tone is steely and determined. Portman’s natural dignity mirrors her subject’s.
In flashbacks the preparation for the famous White House television tour shows just how insecure she was. In the aftermath of the assassination, her dazed courage in standing by as Lyndon Johnson is sworn in and then refusing to change out of her blood-spattered pink suit proves her mettle. Coming out of her stupor, she has changed and is able to meet the immediate challenges.
She insists on marching with her children behind her husband’s coffin as it makes its slow, solemn procession from the White House to the Capitol, over the objections of Robert Kennedy and the Secret Service. Then she must confront the loneliness of her new life, without her husband and out of the limelight.
In the most revealing part of the film, she agrees to an interview with a magazine reporter in Hyannis Port. It’s winter and it’s dreary and it's just the two of them. Chain-smoking, she sets the ground rules, one of which is to not mention that she smokes. When she is particularly candid, she often says “But, of course, you can’t use that.” In the face of her strength and knowing how tenuous and unusual this access is, the reporter never argues the point.
We see her sense of displacement. She doesn’t have a home. It was wrenching to move out of the White House, and she notices Lady Bird inspecting fabric samples as she departs. The Hyannis Port house is lifeless as only a summer home can be in winter – and it belongs to the Kennedys, not her.
This is a tour de force for Portman. She is in nearly every scene and conveys the complexity of Jacqueline Kennedy. Her Oscar nomination is well deserved. The pace of the movie is just right, never lingering too long on any one situation, but giving each the focus it demands. Jackie reminds us just how multi-dimensional this supposedly known quantity really was.
Twentieth Century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills, 1h 59min
Transformation is the essence of this sensitive film, all of which centers around a boy awkwardly facing the challenges of his confusing teenage years.
Dorothea (Annette Bening) has been deserted by her husband for murky reasons, and, as much as she loves her 15-year old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), she is befuddled about how to “make him a man.” Playing Dorothea, seemingly without make-up or even a hairbrush, Bening is loving, ironic, even wise.
In her effort to help Jamie, she enlists two women, really girls. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something, aspiring photographer, is a boarder in Dorothea’s house. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a school friend of Jamie’s, and he is infatuated with her. To escape her psychotherapist mother, Julie often sleeps in Jamie’s bed, but only as a friend, much to his frustration. She has her own problems with boys her age taking advantage of her adolescent confusion.
Another boarder, William (Billy Crudup), seems like the logical choice to be Jamie’s father figure, but his own failures and insecurities keep that from happening.
In a short space of time all of these characters grow, and it’s fun and instructive to see their capacity to change. What could have been stock characters – the single mother, the frustrated artist, the sexually precocious teenage girl and the lost teenage boy – are given a messy reality by this fine ensemble cast. The film sags a bit in the middle, but soon picks up its momentum.
Bening stands out. Her subtle facial expressions and air of detachment contrast with her deep love for her son to make Dorothea very real. She should get more parts like this to show her Streep-like range.
Miss Sloane, directed by John Madden, 2h 12min
Elizabeth Sloane is a powerful D.C. lobbyist and an unapologetic hard-ass in this political thriller. She is clearly not a nice person, berating her subordinates, violating trusts, even employing escorts because she doesn’t have time for dating.
Her one saving grace is that she will only fight for causes she believes in, in this case background checks for gun purchases. No matter how tough she is, her opponent is the Gun Lobby, and they don’t lose.
Through lots of twists and turns Miss Sloane, played with a grim determination by the talented Jessica Chastain, is investigated by Congress and betrayed by everyone around her, fitting in nicely with pre-conceptions about Washington. She in turn launches investigations of her accusers. When the truth is eventually after two hours, you may have either gotten lost or stopped caring.
As good as Chastain usually is, she can’t keep Sloane from being one dimensional and unsympathetic. It’s out of the theaters at this point but should be streaming soon. If you are a fan of jumbled D.C. thrillers, you may want to check it out. It’s a lot easier to turn off than walk out.