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


film review of Spotlight

February 4, 2016

(This review appeared in The Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 28 January 2016. Click here to view a copy of the Jewish News article.)

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D’Arcy James and Billy Crudup

There are many good reasons to see the new film “Spotlight”, which details the real-life events of how the “Boston Globe” newspaper reported on and “broke” the story of systematic Catholic clergy child abuse. It’s the best film about investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men” dramatised the Watergate scandal. The superb cast – all portraying real-life characters – provides the best ensemble acting of any film in recent memory. And “Spotlight” is set in a time (2001 and 2002, spanning the events of September 11th) and a place (Boston) that grounds the film in a true historical reality, down to the thick and accurate Boston accents, and including a fabulous portrayal of a media world on the cusp of dramatic digital transformation.

“Spotlight” is the name of the “Boston Globe’s” investigative team, a group of fiercely independent journalists. In the middle of 2001, the “Globe” – then owned by the “The New York Times” – received its first editor who had not grown up locally: Marty Baron (played by Liev Schrieber), transferred by “The Times” from the “Miami Herald”, and subsequently named by “Esquire” magazine as the “best news editor of all time”. Baron was also the “Globe’s” first Jewish editor; he encouraged the Spotlight team to tackle the simmering child abuse scandal. With Catholics comprising more than half the paper’s readership – and the Spotlight team all “lapsed” Catholics themselves – it took the outsider, the Jewish guy, to force the issue, against both internal resistance and external opposition.

Baron wasn’t the only outsider on the case. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci) had long represented numerous child abuse victims suing the Church. Garabedian’s character points out that as an Armenian, he is not part of Boston’s Catholic “power elite”, and thus able to challenge the status quo. In Boston, religion matters. A lot.

Although Baron and Garabedian played important roles in uncovering the scandal, the film concentrates on the work of the Spotlight team itself: lead writer Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), team leader Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), and researchers Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), following them through their daily grind and the emotional journeys of slowly uncovering what turned out to be one of the biggest religious scandals in American history. No-one, including this team at first, could believe that the Church had systematically covered up and protected so many abusive priests. The team eventually published 600 stories about the abuse and the team received a Pulitzer Prize.

This is a “close” and intimate film, powerful and fast-paced, with an extraordinary attention to detail by writer/director Tom McCarthy. Not surprisingly, “Spotlight” has received numerous accolades, including six Oscar nominations, for best picture, director, editing, original script and acting for Ruffalo and McAdams. Aside from the realistic Boston settings, the sense of verisimilitude is enhanced by the cast: most of the Catholic characters are played by Catholics and Schrieber is Jewish.

This is another important reason to see “Spotlight”: as one of the most important contemporary dramatic films made about religion, it holds far-reaching significance for Australia. The film concludes with an on-screen listing of 105 American cities and 102 dioceses world-wide where sexual abuse by Catholic priests have come to light: 22 of the international locations are Australian, from Adelaide to Melbourne to Sydney to Wollongong, with many in-between.

“Spotlight” also illustrates a major reason why the Catholic Church refused to take a principled stand against the antisemitic portrayal of Jews by Mel Gibson in his 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ”. According to a Boston priest with extensive interfaith Jewish experience who I interviewed in 2008, the Church’s authority was so weakened by the scandals depicted in “Spotlight” that the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops felt unable or unwilling to risk offending their constituencies by criticising a popular Hollywood film. The result: far greater success for Gibson’s film than it deserved.

Spotlight(photo above: the lead actors of the “Spotlight” team: from left – Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian D’Arcy James