Jackie

Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt

Director: Pablo Larraín

Writer: Noah Oppenheim


Of all the American presidents, Kennedy is perhaps the most mythologised. After a less than three-year presidency that came to a sudden, tragic end, he is remembered by many as one of the greatest in the country’s history. The Kennedy administration is often seen as a lost golden age for the country, a time of hope and endless possibilities. So strong is his this idea that the spots on his record such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his notorious womanising have done nothing to tarnish it. Kennedy’s legacy has been such a driving force in American history that it’s easy to forget that it is ultimately a myth. Although Kennedy was indeed an impressive man and a good president with great ideas, his legacy carries a sense of idealism and romance that no real person could possibly embody. Camelot, as it came to be called, is an idea that his since immortalised the memory of John F. Kennedy. This film tells the story of the legend’s author, Jackie Kennedy, the President’s beloved and equally impressive First Lady.

Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) set out deliver this message to the world when she summoned Life journalist Theodore H. White for an interview a week after her husband’s death. The film provides a fictionalised version of this interview with a journalist played by Billy Crudup. Thus we are given an account of Jackie’s days as the First Lady. The film follows her from the early days to her famous TV tour of the White House to the day of the assassination. As her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) takes control of the situation, Jackie must all at once process the terrible shock that has occurred, work out how best to mourn the man who has inspired so many conflicting emotions within her, and decide what role she must play in defining the late president’s legacy. To this end she seeks guidance from such confidantes as Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt).

In the days following the President’s assassination the First Lady’s state of mind is disordered and fragmented and the story’s structure reflects that. The film jumps back and forth in time and creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of a woman going through an unimaginable crisis. Before, she was a dutiful wife whose whole identity was defined by her husband’s pursuits and ambition. Upon his death she no longer knows who she’s supposed to be, she only knows that she cannot be her own person. She still has a duty to perform and her grief and distress is secondary to that of the country. Privately she finds that she must confront her feelings towards her husband, a man whose life dominated her own and who was unfaithful to her, in order to grieve and mourn him. This is something she has to do alone as she finds herself largely neglected by those who are more concerned with the political effects of this tragedy. Upon the death of the nation’s leader the need to swear in his successor as soon as possible is so paramount that hardly anyone notices the widow sitting in the adjacent room on the plane still wearing the dress stained with her husband’s blood.

Natalie Portman is a tour de force as the bereaved First Lady. Her speech and expressions are wonderfully deliberate as she conveys a character putting on a performance, donning a number of masks depending on who Jackie needs or is required to be. In the 1961 documentary she is the gracious, glamorous host introducing the world to a new kind of White House with a new kind of president. At Kennedy’s funeral (which she makes sure is elaborate enough for the President to be remembered like Lincoln, rather than forgotten like Garfield and McKinley), she is the strong, devoted wife putting on a brave face for her children and the public. With the journalist she is the composed, antagonistic narrator, adamant that not a single word will be printed without her approval. The moments when her masks drop and we see her true vulnerable self are devastatingly affective as are her moments of endurance and determination as she takes control of her own life and her husband’s legacy. The astonishing layers Portman brings to the character as she balances the complex, often-conflicting motivations and emotions are simply breathtaking.

“This will be your version of what happened” says the journalist as he begins his interview with the First Lady. This is a film that has set out to tell Jacqueline Kennedy’s story on her own terms and it does so without convention or sentimentality. Oppenheim’s screenplay is startling in the liberties it takes, depicting Jackie in her most private, vulnerable moments. The movie is by all means a fiction, in that it isn’t based on any credited sources, but the profound insights it conveys through this complex, fascinating woman are still deeply moving and strikingly authentic. Equally striking are the visual aspects from the beautifully intimate cinematography to the alluring costumes, as well as the mesmerising score accompanying them. Jackie is a wholly remarkable film that defies the conventions of the traditional biographical films that tend to emerge around awards season. It is a captivating, challenging and stunningly sincere picture of grief, identity and myth.

★★★★★

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The Magnificent Seven

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sansmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk


In making this film Fuqua has given himself not one, but two cinematic legacies to live up to. First is Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai, arguably the greatest and most influential picture ever made by the great Japanese director. The second is John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, the lesser Hollywood remake that nevertheless brought its own style and charm to the story. The former is a groundbreaking epic of masterful artistry and immense depth. The latter is a classic American western made enormously watchable by its terrific production and all-star cast. Neither of the shadows cast by these films can be ignored. Although this film takes the name of the Sturges’ film, it still cites the Kurosawa epic as its source material. Thus, whether the film wants to be an entertaining escapist spectacle or an innovative work of art (or, dare I say, both), the standard is high on both fronts.

The mining town of Rose Creek is attacked by a troop of bandits led by the corrupt entrepreneur Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who imposes his will by slaughtering many of the locals. Thus Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) set out on a mission in search of help. They find it in the warrant officer Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) who accepts the contract upon learning of Bogue’s involvement. He sets out to recruit a team to help him with this endeavour, starting with the gambler John Faraday (Chris Pratt). The two are later joined by the sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding comrade Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), the crazed but capable tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the disreputable Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). The seven of them together come to Rose Creek where they put into motion a plan to defend the town and its people from Bogue’s forces.

One of the strong points shared by both the Kurosawa and the Sturges films is the simplicity of their stories. Seven diverse warriors band together to combat a single threat. It is this simplicity that allowed both stories to be strongly driven by character and action. Fuqua’s film has this same simple setup; the problem is that he offers little of substance in its execution. Despite having a terrific cast at his disposal, there are few moments when they are truly able to come together and bring some life to the story. This is largely because the characters are defined more by star power than they are by their personalities. This can work on occasion. Chris Pratt, for example, does well in what is very much a ‘Chris Pratt’ role: a cocky but charming scoundrel. Denzel Washington however is cast as a strong, silent type and is thus allowed few opportunities to display his formidable on-screen presence and charisma. The chemistry between the actors is sometimes there, as in one scene where Washington and Hawke revive some of the energy that made them a great duo in Training Day, but little of it adds either drive or weight to the narrative.

There was certainly potential for a great movie here. The greatest realisation of that potential is the criminally underused Sarsgaard as the overtly evil Bogue. The cast is easily this film’s strongest asset and it’s a shame that Fuqua was unable to take full advantage of it. Still, for some viewers at least, the assemblage of these actors in this setting will be enough. I did like that the film took strides to include greater diversity in its ensemble, incorporating men of different ethnicities who showcase singular styles of fighting. This pays off in the third act when the final battle takes place. What we get here is more than simple horse riding and gunfire. During this climax Billy Rocks brings his knives into the gunfight, the ox-like Jack Thorne bull rushes his foes into submission and Red Harvest looses arrows left, right and centre. The build up towards this fight may have been lacklustre and the major character deaths that follow may not resonate in any meaningful way but, in terms of pure spectacle, it’s still a pretty great climax.

While there isn’t anything substantially wrong with this film, as far as remakes go, there is nothing that allows The Magnificent Seven to stand on its own two feet. Compared to the Sturges’ classic it is a lesser imitation. To even bother comparing it to Kurosawa’s masterpiece would be almost like comparing a finger painting to the ‘Mona Lisa’. It is a sometimes entertaining but ultimately hollow film that feels more like a star vehicle than it does a western. It seemed to me that the film was more interested in cashing in on the ensemble blockbuster trend started by The Avengers than it was in telling a great story. The western setting felt artificial and the movie’s discussion on the themes of honour, justice and sacrifice felt insincere. This film could have been something special, if only it had half of the emotion and depth of the films that influenced it. Instead The Magnificent Seven stands as a picture of unrealised possibility and unfulfilled promise.

★★