Film review of Jackie

January 22, 2017

(This film review of “Jackie” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 19 January 2017.)

Directed by Pablo Larrain; written by Noah Oppenheim; starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt.

Few Americans are held in such mythical regard as Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Kennedy, the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK.  Jewish actress Natalie Portman expertly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance in the film “Jackie”, a role that will surely place her in the front row of next month’s Oscars.

Although “Jackie” (the film) lovingly references the stage musical “Camelot” – written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe – a play that operated as an anthem (“one shining moment”) for the short-lived idealistic Kennedy administration, the film holds none of the musical’s romantic optimism.  Set primarily in the week following President Kennedy’s death, the film instead is a close study of Jackie Kennedy’s powerful grief, and her determined actions to locate her husband’s place in American historical memory through an unforgettable state funeral that included walking behind a horse-drawn casket.  That Natalie Portman makes this personal agony so watchable is a testament to the depth of her towering performance, her excellent co-stars and Chilean director Pablo Larrain, working in English for the first time.

The film uses two techniques to illustrate this tragic moment of American history.  First is a re-creation of the events of the assassination and its aftermath, notably with scenes of Jackie cradling President Kennedy’s bloodied head as the car speeds to Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital, both of them shielded by Secret Service agent Clint Hill (David Caves). The film also follows Jackie during the crucial four days following the assassination and planning of JFK’s funeral, in which she took the lead role through force of personality.  The other technique – a great achievement by Jewish scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim – involves two confessional talks that Jackie Kennedy had in the days following the tragedy: an interview with historian Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) that resulted in a famous “Life” magazine article, and a counselling session with radical Jesuit priest Richard McSorley (John Hurt).  These “reconstructed” private sessions allow the film-makers to reveal Jackie’s most intimate thoughts, giving the film great depth and insight into Jackie’s mind and psyche at the time.

Although “Jackie” can be difficult to watch at times, it is a “must see” for fans of American political history.  Each member of the excellent cast plays a real-life figure, including Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard), Jackie’s friend and adviser Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, unrecognisable from her normal carefree thirtysomething post-modern roles), President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), Johnson’s wife “Lady Bird” (Beth Grant), film lobbyist and Johnson adviser Jack Valenti (Max Casella), journalist and Kennedy friend William Walton (Richard E. Grant) and President Kennedy (Caspar Phillpson).  The film will withstand repeated viewings so that we can pick out other famous figures who appear, including children John F. Kennedy Junior and Caroline Kennedy, sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother-in-laws Peter Lawford and Sargent Shriver, mother Rose Kennedy, Jackie’s step-father Hugh Auchincloss, Texas Governor John Connally, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and “Washington Post” editor Benjamin Bradlee.

The re-created Washington DC of the period – down to what appears to be the actual location of Kennedy’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery – is also superb.

The film’s January release date in Australia is a virtual tour de force of film marketing (not unlike the release of the 1927 “Jazz Singer”, about the life of Al Jolson, on the night before Kol Nidre):  our interest in US “First Ladies” is at an eight year peak, as the world bids goodbye to the much beloved Michelle Obama and gets ready to welcome the still unknown Melania Trump.

Jackie Kennedy’s later years (not covered in this film) also have two fascinating Jewish connections/  She spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Belgium-born Yiddish-speaking Jewish diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman, with whom she was rarely seen in public, but widely acknowledged to be her third great love.  Jackie’s daughter Caroline also married a Jewish man (Edwin Schlossberg); she is currently the US Ambassador to Japan. Her brother John Kennedy Junior died in a light plane crash in 1999.

natalie-portman-in-jackie


The Forward’s ‘Top 50’ Jews in American Life

November 29, 2015

Here’s further proof that Australia and the USA – despite being linked by the English language and a long and deep friendship – are worlds apart in social, political and artistic cultures. “The Forward” – possibly the oldest and still the best Jewish newspaper in the USA (originally published in Yiddish as “The Jewish Daily Forward”, and read religiously by my grandfather Sol) back in the 1930s – has just published its list of the 50 Jews in the USA making the most impact in 2015.

The article is entitled “Loud, Proud, And at The Heart of America”. Author Jane Eisner points out that, “This is a year when American Jews are deeply, loudly and passionately embedded in some of the most pressing political and social issues in the nation.” Jews seem to be everywhere on the cultural cutting edge, “from the debate over a nuclear deal with Iran, to the emergence of transgender identity in synagogues and on screen, to the groundbreaking acceptance of marriage equality.”

Politics: Presidential wanna-be (Vermont Senator) Bernie Sanders, as well as New York Senator Chuck Schumer (uncle of Amy, more on her later) and Congressman Jerry Nadler (New York City – whose district we lived in during our 2011 residence).

Culture: TV show “Transparent” director Jill Soloway and actor Jeffrey Tambor. And number one on the list: actress and comedienne Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”, and one of “Time” magazine’s “top 100”).

And so the list goes. Fascinating, yes.

But from the perspective of Jews who live outside of the USA, how many of them are “household names” here in Australia (or anywhere else outside of North America), even in the Jewish community? Remarkably, astonishingly, few. Check out the list yourself. Of the 50 (see the complete list below), I only count 12 that I can name with assurance – AND I think I am tied in to US culture and politics.

The ones I recognise are Amy Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Michael Dell (computers), Sheldon Adelson (casino magnate, Jewish philanthropist and conservative activist), Ben Lerner (post-modern novelist), Jill Soloway, Jeffrey Tambour, Jon Stewart (TV host), Sarah Koenig (NPR’s “Serial” podcast), Jerrold Nadler, Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein (California Senator).

Top 5
• Amy Schumer
• Marina Rustow
• Bernie Sanders
• Mendy Reiner
• Evan Wolfson

Activism
• Shoshana Roberts
• Nicholas Lowinger
• Emma Sulkowitcz
• Alan Gross
• Ruth Messinger
• Ruby Sklar (and Rachel)

Business
• Michael Dell
• Paul Singer
• Justin Hartfield

Community
• Eli Broad
• Haim Saban
• Tom Sosnik
• Sheldon Adelson
• Alisa Doctoroff

Culture
• Jill Soloway
• Hari Nef
• Billy Eichner
• Shulem Deen
• Nicole Eisenman
• Ben Lerner
• Jeffrey Tambor
• Zalmen Mlotek
• Carolyn Hessel
• Jon Stewart
• Ike Barinholtz
• Sarah Koenig

Food
• Alon Shaya
• Yehuda Sichel
• Leah Koenig

Media
• Lori Adelman
• Sarah Maslin Nir

Politics
• Jerrold Nadler
• Charles Schumer
• Ann Lewis
• Dianne Feinstein
• Wendy Sherman
• Leon Rodriguez

Religion
• Bethany Mandel
• Deborah Waxman
• Capers Funnye
• Naftuli Moster

Science
• Evelyn Witkin
• Gary Cohen
• Tom Frieden

Sports
• Dustin Fleischer

(Amy Schumer’s image from the article appears below.)

Amy Schumer image The Forward


Do all American history professors really want to be the Secretary of State?

November 5, 2014

A few weeks ago, the American television series “Madam Secretary” premiered here in Australia. It’s being billed as a contender for the “The Good Wife” audience mixing it up with “West Wing”, with a strong and attractive female central character played by Tea Leoni. I am a great fan of Leoni, despite the fact that she has never really had a “great” screen role: my favourite films of hers are “Family Man”, “Fun With Dick and Jane” and “Ghost Town”, none of which qualify as truly memorable, despite their warm hearts and Leoni’s warm performances.

In “Madam Secretary” (which she also co-produces), Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA agent turned history academic who gets tapped to become the Secretary of State. It’s a great set-up, with endless possibilities around the conflict between academia and governmental service, the former CIA connections and the nature of women in the halls of power. Sadly, despite the attractiveness of the cast, I am left underwhelmed. Sadly, I should say. McCord has a wonderful husband, a religion and ethics professor (played by Tim Daly); wouldn’t all professional women want a man like that – he cooks, looks after the three handsome children during her inevitable long days and nights in the office, AND holds a full-time full professorship.

The show is popular, but it plot lines are simplistic and often unrealistic, the supporting cast mostly uninspiring, and – as Woody Allen would say – there are so few of them. Where is the rich panoply of supporting (and one-off) characters that we find in “The Good Wife”? Even the President (played by Keith Carradine) comes across as bland. Where indeed are her under-secretaries, the ambassador to the United Nations, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor?

There is also a basic issue with Leoni in this role: at age 48 (and a youthful-looking one at that), she is too young to be a Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton made it there at age 62. The current one, John Kerry, is almost 71. Sure, Condoleeza Rice was 51 when she took on the role, but at least she had been the National Security Advisor first. And that’s the natural role for Elizabeth McCord – with a possible elevation later on. But the producers were impatient, and the show is all the poorer for it.

A number of academics have risen to become Secretary of State. Aside from Rice (Stanford University), we have had Madeline Albright (Georgetown University) and Henry Kissinger (Harvard). When I studied at Cornell University in the 1970s, we even thought that my American history foreign policy professor, Walter LaFeber – now 81 years old and still going strong – was aiming at that office. I studied with him for two semesters, three lectures per week, which he did with no notes and a simple chalked outline that he wrote behind him. The third lecture was on Saturday mornings. And here’s the thing – in this day and age you might expect that few students would attend the Saturday lecture (or any, for that matter) – they were the best-attended. Why? Because people brought their friends and visitors. That was how well-respected and impressive LaFeber was on the Cornell campus at that time.

Was it just a rumour that LaFeber was interested in the role? Who knows. But “Madam Secretary” shows that this interest does not fade.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary


The Democratic-Republican divide – the closer you live together, the more Democratic you are

December 15, 2013

This week’s lot of informational emails brought in two conflicting stories.  On the one hand, Linked In’s “The Big Idea has a post from Glenn Kelman entitled “The Texasization of America”, in which he promotes the idea, with some enthusiasm, that America should be more like Texas – with its low tax rates, low-density suburban car-oriented living and business-friendly environment.  He believes that Texas will become even more Republican, despite substantial evidence to the contrary – such as Micah Cohen’s March 2013 New York Times blog post.

Curiously, Kelman appears to misquote research that shows that denser areas are becoming more and more Democratic in their voting.  As Richard Florida points out, the increasing Democratic voting trend has been apparent for more than nine years now:  a 2004 book entitled The Emerging Democratic Majority by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted this some time ago.  The authors consciously copied the name of the book The Emerging Republican Majority by Kevin Phillips; I read it while in college in the early 1970s.  Here is a copy of the original New York Times review of that older book, published on September 21, 1969 – and written by Warren Weaver, Jr.  Wait long enough and some things change dramatically, even inverting our original theories and conclusions.  But who knew then?

But the real insights on this phenomenon come from entrepreneur Dave Troy, who has carefully analysed the density versus voting patterns in the November 2012 Presidential election.  He definitively concludes:

98% of the 50 most dense counties voted Obama; 98% of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney.

At about 800 people per square mile, people switch from voting primarily Republican to voting primarily Democratic. Put another way, below 800 people per square mile, there is a 66% chance that you voted Republican. Above 800 people per square mile, there is a 66% chance that you voted Democrat. A 66% preference is a clear, dominant majority.  (See the graph below.)

There are very few cities in red states….  The few dense cities that do exist in red states voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Red state voters generally prefer low-density housing, prefer to drive cars, and are sensitive to gas prices. Once population density gets to a certain level, behaviors switch: high-density housing is the norm, public transit becomes more common, and gas use (and price sensitivity) drops.   Red state values are simply incompatible with density.

densityvotingchart 2012For those of us living in Australia, the question is:  how much does this phenomenon translate here?  Does it?  Partially yes, but partially … no.  (Anyone checked the voting intentions of some of Sydney’s dense eastern suburbs recently?)  But the patterns – and their cultural preferences – are distinctive.  Food for thought.

 

 

 


Why does the Tea Party exist?

November 3, 2013

From where I sit – in Sydney, Australia – the rise and political power of the Tea Party appears to be bewildering.  Especially in the light of the Republican quixotic and failed attempts to stop “Obamacare”, the national health insurance scheme that actually originated with Republicans (how times have changed).

Richard Longworth – a Chicago-based former journalist who is fast becoming one of my favourite American political/social commentators – has posted a recent blog that goes a long way to explain this success to those of us who are not “up close” with the phenomenon of current American right-wing politics.  Longworth quotes Francis Wilkinson, from the Bloomberg website, in an article entitled “Why Republicans shut down the government”, who writes:

A lot of Americans were not ready for a mixed-race president. They weren’t ready for gay marriage. They weren’t ready for the wave of legal and illegal immigration that redefined American demographics over the past two or three decades, bringing in lots of nonwhites. They weren’t ready — who was? — for the brutal effects of globalization on working- and middle-class Americans or the devastating fallout from the financial crisis.

Their representatives didn’t stop Obamacare. And their side didn’t ‘take back America’ in 2012 as Fox News and conservative radio personalities led them to believe they would. They feel the culture is running away from them (and they’re mostly right). They lack the power to control their own government. But they still have just enough to shut it down.

The last sentence is the key – they do not have enough power to control America (they are in a distinct, and shrinking) minority, but they have enough power to bring the workings of government to a halt.

Both Longworth and Wilkinson quote a fascinating report by Democratic poll expert Stan Greenberg, who conducted a series of focus groups with Republican, Tea Party and other voters.  Greenberg concludes that Republicans:

think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those de-pendent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy—not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.

And while few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party.

The last sentence, again, is a key.  Race remains an important factor.  But of course, it’s not that simple.  The Republican Party is not monolithic, with substantial differences between Republican “moderates”, Evangelical Protestants (who feel a “deep sense of cultural and political loss”) and libertarians, who prefer little or no government interference in personal or economic lives.  As Greenberg also writes:

Moderates are a quarter of those who identify Republican, and they are very conscious of their discomfort with other parts of the party base. Their distance begins with social issues, like gay marriage and homosexuality, but it is also evident on immigration and climate change. Fiscal conservatives feel isolated in the party.

Evangelicals who feel most threatened by trends embrace the Tea Party because they are the ones who are fighting back. They are very in tune politically, but the Tea Party base is very libertarian and not very interested in fighting gay marriage.

So there you have it.  There is a certain “tide of history”, and it’s pretty clear that social liberalisation (i.e., gay marriage = marriage equality) is part of that current tide.  This is so not only in the USA, but increasingly here in Australia where it continues to creep into the national consciousness and debate, with the ACT Government recently passing legislation to legalise gay marriage.  But those religious conservative Americans who oppose marriage equality (and its bedmates, gender and racial equality) clearly feel threatened in social, political and spiritual ways.  This leads to their increasing sense of alienation from modern life.

These patterns have been around for a long time, and my own PhD research into the box office support for the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ identified some of them, especially with relation to the Evangelicals.  Knowing where the issues come from is one thing, but breaking what appears to be a political impasse is another.


California – unappreciated by all

August 7, 2013

I have “waxed lyrical” about California in my posts, so here’s a short description from the University of California at Berkeley alumni series that took place last October (2012), just prior to the Presidential election:

California is the 9th largest economy in the world, supplies the nation with much of its food, resources and innovation, and has the finest public university system ever conceived. It is also buried under a mountain of debt and gets little respect from the federal government. Democrats treat the state like an ATM at election time, and then largely write it off for four years. Republicans scorn it as an incorrigible bastion of liberalism.

An interesting view.

However I will put it that California exists independently from politics, and no matter which party occupies the White House, California will do just fine.  It is too big, too diverse, and too powerful, with too many breaking-the-edge 21st century (and 20th century, for that matter) industries.

California Bear


Jackie Robinson, the film “42” and the Obama years

May 23, 2013

The Obama years continue to push American culture in unexpected ways.  The latest manifestation of this phenomenon is “42”, a film about the great African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson, who became the first black man to play in Major League Baseball.

American racists may be unhappy, but Obama’s post-racial America is a whole lot closer now than it was five years ago when he was battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.  Too many things have happened in American culture for the clock ever to go back to where it once was.  Using US Census data, the Pew Research Center concluded in December 2012 that in the last Presidential election, for the first time in US history, blacks appeared to vote at a higher percentage rate than whites.  And further, this shift has been operating for the last four Presidential elections – in other words, back to the year 2000.  And here’s the thing:  this new pattern of voting has been happening in spite of well-funded and vigorous attempts by the Republican Party and conservative groups to disenfranchise black voters.

Well, back to Jackie Robinson ….

Jackie Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.  He played for ten seasons, including six World Series and six All-Star games.  With a lifetime batting average of .311, he was the National League “Rookie of the Year” in 1947 and that league’s “Most Valuable Player” in 1949.  In 1997, his baseball number – 42 – was officially “retired”, so no-one else would use it in any team.  Thus that number still holds a strong resonance for baseball fans, past and – presumably – future.

“42” had a great promotional start, premiering in Los Angeles on April 10, 2013, before its cinema release on April 12.  Five days later – April 15, 2013 – Major League Baseball celebrated its yearly “Jackie Robinson Day”, a day when all players wear uniform number 42 – in honour of the memory of Robinson.  (Neat timing, huh?)

“42” stars the relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ General Manager.  It’s written and directed by Brian Helgeland, a superior screenwriter (“L.A. Confidential”, “Mystic River”, “Robin Hood”, “Green Zone”, “Taking of Pelham 1,2,3”) who may yet become an accomplished director.

Robinson played himself in the only other big-screen version of his life, the 1950 film called “The Jackie Robinson Story”.  Other screen portrayals have all been on television, including John Lafayette playing Robinson in “A Home Run for Love” (1978), Andre Braugher in “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson” (1990) and Blair Underwood in “Soul of the Game” (1996).  In addition, a 1981 Broadway musical called “The First” (book by critic Joel Siegel) starred David Alan Grier.  With “42”, Robinson has made it back to the big screen.  It’s no coincidence that First Lady Michelle Obama hosted Robinson’s widow Rachel and the cast of “42” at the White House on April 4, 2013.

“42” also holds a “tie” record for one of the shortest film titles on record.  I recall reading some years ago that the average length of the title of an Oscar-winning film was about 1.4 words.  Think “Castaway”, “Braveheart”, “Titanic”, “Amadeus”, “Atonement”, “Babe”, “Babel”, “Capote”, “Casablanca”, “Chicago”, “Chinatown”, “Crash” ….  Need I go on?  Two letters, however, is hard to beat.  Possible, but not by much.

“42” was originally scheduled for a May release in Australia, but now appears to be “tbc”, despite the presence of film great Harrison Ford.  American baseball movies, no matter how good they are, don’t tend to do well in this country, as we lack that sporting tradition, with the game genuinely foreign to most film-goers here.

View the film’s trailer here: