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


Early 2017 Jewish film releases

December 22, 2016

(This article appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 22 December 2016.)

Many of the best films released in Australia arrive in early summer each year, coinciding with the release of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in late January and early February.  Watch out for:

January 12

Jackie:  Playing Jaqueline Kennedy is a big step; few Americans are held in such mythical regard as 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 (already nominated for a Golden Globe best actress) perfectly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance that is likely to place her sitting in the front row awaiting next February’s best actress Oscar choice. “New Yorker” film critic Anthony Lane calls “Jackie”, “a dance to the music of grief”:  this film is a slice of American tragedy.  Given the recent Presidential election and the fascination with “First Ladies”, “Jackie” may very well capture the current “zeitgeist political moment”.   Jewish TV producer Noah Oppenheim scripted, Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert F. Kennedy, Greta Gerwig plays White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman and Billy Crudup plays the historian Theodore H. White.  Jewish trivia:  The Forward reports that Jackie Kennedy spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Maurice Tempelsman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.  In common with President Bill and Hillary Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, Jackie’s daughter Caroline married a Jewish man.  The soundtrack of “Camelot”, which closes this film, was written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

January 19:

Lion, produced by Emile Sherman (Australian Jewish producer and Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”), is being tipped for Oscar considerations.  It’s a great – and true – Australian story, adapted from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly. Five-year-old Saroo finds himself alone and travelling on the wrong train away from his home in northern India. Frightened and bewildered, he ends up thousands of miles away. He survives the streets, ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman (nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actress) and David Wenham, and grows up in Hobart.  The kicker to this story is that using his imperfect early childhood memory and new satellite-imaging technology, Saroo commences “one of the greatest needle-in-a-haystack quests of modern times” – to find his family.  Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”; also nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actor) stars as the older Saroo.

Two other important films are due out in February or March, to be confirmed once Oscar nominations are announced:

Denial, the historical dramatisation of the court case brought against American Holocaust expert and professor Deborah Lipstadt, opened this year’s Australian Jewish film festival to powerful reactions. Directed by Mick Jackson and written by Sir David Hare (“The Reader”, “The Hours”), it is based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier about how David Irving sued her and Penguin Books for libel.  The film stars Jewish actress Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winner for “The Constant Gardener”.  Other actors include Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall as David Irving.

Land of Mine premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is being considered for a best foreign language Oscar.  The title of this Danish-German co-production (“Under Sandet” in German) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm many thousands of land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark.  Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant who is filled with rage against the Germans.  This powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

Other films to note in early 2017 include:

January 5:

Edge of Seventeen, an unusually high quality (and soon could be classic) teen film stars Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld, best supporting actress Oscar nominee for “True Grit” (and nominated for a Golden Globe best actress).

January 12

Collateral Beauty, an absorbing drama about post-traumatic stress starring Will Smith, directed by Jewish director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada“) and written by Jewish screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire”).

February 2:

In Patriot’s Day, a docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing from Jewish director Peter Berg, the theme of home-grown Islamic fundamentalism-turning violent terrorism remains highly contemporary (both the USA and Australia).  Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons star.

Bastards, a comedy from first-time Jewish director Lawrence Sher, who has been one of the most accomplished American cinematographers in recent years (not at profession that has attracted many Jews), and who grew up in “the Orthodox neighbourhood of Teaneck, New Jersey”. Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play two brothers with an eccentric mother (Glenn Close).

February 16:

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel about 17th century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan.  Scorsese has created what will probably be one of the most significant religious history films in years.  Stars include Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Liam Neeson and Adam Driver.

March 30

The Ghost in the Shell stars Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson in a sci-fi action film that will bring in audiences, based on the Japanese manga.

Table 19 is an American wedding comedy by Jewish director Jeffrey Blitz, who is an Oscar nominee for the documentary “Spellbound”. Anna Kendrick and Lisa Kudrow star.

April 6

In Going in Style, Zach Braff – the Jewish director of “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here” – has created a comic heist/caper film, with a great cast including iconic Jewish actor Alan Arkin, along with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon and Christopher Lloyd.

denialImage above: Rachel Weisz (left) plays Deborah Lipstadt (right) in the film “Denial”; see Moment Magazine‘s article and also The New Yorker article by Tad Friend, 3 October 2016.