Armchair Oscars – 2016

| February 27, 2017

Best Picture

La La Land (Directed by Damien Chazelle)
Moonlight (Directed by Barry Jenkins)
The Nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High WaterHidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea

O.J.: Made in America (Directed by Ezra Edelman)
My Nominees:
Fences (Denzel Washington), Jackie (Pablo Larrain), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a sweet romantic musical confection about the aspirations of a handsome jazz musician and a pretty budding actress set amid the lush ocean-side landscape of The City of Angels was the darling of the 2017 awards season winning six Golden Globes, five BAFTA awards, plus Best Film honors from the Screen Actor’s Guild, the AFI and honors from film critics associations in Boston, Atlanta, Denver, Ohio, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Las Vegas, London, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Venice and of course, Los Angeles.  Then on Oscar night it was named Best Picture . . . for about five minutes.

In one of the biggest snafus in Oscar history, presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope just before the announcement of the year’s biggest award.  Looking befuddled and confused, Beatty hesitated at the announcement and then turned the envelope over to his former Bonnie and Clyde co-star who announced Chazelle’s musical as the year’s Best Picture winner.  For five brief minutes, everyone in the world stood under the misapprehension that La La Land had won including the film’s producers who crowded the stage to thank their wives and their agents.  But a commotion ensued behind them as the blunder was revealed.  It was not La La Land but Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight that had won the year’s Best Picture.  Brian Cullinan of Price Waterhouse Coopers had handed Beatty the duplicate envelope for the Best Actress winner Emma Stone.

The blunder got few complaints, especially from me.  While I think La La Land is a perfectly lovely musical, I didn’t regard it with the revere that other critics had.  Meanwhile Moonlight was an achingly powerful examination of a fatherless boy’s struggles with his identity while growing up in the Miami projects; of how his environment and the people he meets shape the man he will become.  It takes place over 20 years as we see the little boy, nicknamed Little, grow into a teenager who reclaims his given name Chiron, and later into an adult as he becomes a burly drug dealer nicknamed Black.  All three chapters of Chiron’s life shape his world and the emotional process that creates the identity that he forges for himself.

By the time Oscar night rolled around I had settled in to the fact that there was no way that Moonlight had a chance to win – I predicted that La La Land would be the winner, with Fences as a dark horse.  I personally think that Moonlight was the best and most challenging film among the nominees and I was proud of the voters for stepping outside of their comfort zones and choosing an important film that was really about something, a film that that spoke to issues of personal and sexual identity without making them seem preachy or overdrawn.

And yet, as much as I love the film, I’m not choosing it for my Armchair Oscar.  While it is a great film I have to confess that I struggle a bit with the ending.  While Chiron arrives at a moment of realization and reconciliation, I think the last scene is missing something.  Yes, Chiron confesses his love to Kevin, the only man who ever touched his heart, but the end runs up to an image that I felt pulled the conclusion a bit short.  Were he and Kevin in a relationship?  What is to become of their lives after this moment?  Perhaps I could settle on the idea that the film is leaving me something to ponder, but I felt that there was one more beat missing from that ending to make the film perfect.  I know that sounds like I’m nitpicking, but it was something that I struggled to work out on the drive home from the theater, and I’ve struggled with ever since.

Never-the-less, Moonlight is brilliant film.  It was not only proof that the Academy was taking their craft seriously but it was also the perfect film to reverse the embarrassing controversy from the previous year with the all-white nomination roster that led to #OscarSoWhite.  The diverse nominees for this year were not simple-minded, buttery apologies.  They were quality films that proved that the Academy had listened and responded in kind, at least for now.

My favorite film of the year was part of that diversity in that it focused on an African-American celebrity who seemed to have no use for race as a driving force to get ahead, but never-the-less as its backdrop, the racial history of America as it existed in the last third of the 20th century.  Ezra Edelman’s brilliant Citizen Kane-style documentary O.J.: Made in America is about as stunning, relevant and monumentally important as it gets.  At a time when any and every piece of recent bleeding history can be trotted out and turned into exploitative trash, it is unusual that one of the most exploited of recent historical events is turned into a film that is not only insightful but an important portrait of our recent cultural history.

The story of O.J. Simpson might have been easy to recount as populist trash, hashing out the facts for the easily-satiated purveyors of tabloid media.  Director Ezra Edelman, however, is smarter than that.  He knows, full well, what an unbelievably dense story he has on his hands.  He’s interested in more than just the bloody glove and the white Ford Bronco.  His is a brilliantly executed piece of full-blooded investigative journalism, a look into the life of a sports legend that became famous during the worst racial tensions in American history and gained infamy at a moment when those race relations were becoming the focus of a newly global visual media.  There was bloodshed and violence in the atmosphere and not just at Rockingham.

O.J. Made in America is one of the great documentaries of our time that is also about our time.  Like Shoah or Eyes on the Prize, it takes a subject that we think we know all too well and expands it to the broader spectrum, not just of the facts of the case but of the world that helped to inspire it.  In this case the rise and fall of a once-great football star who made himself a celebrity brand name and then, arguably, an even bigger celebrity for the murder trial and acquittal that rocked the nation nearly a quarter of a century ago.  Edelman’s film pans back to see Simpson’s rise and fall in conjunction with an America that was racially at war with itself and brought the problem to light using as its fulcrum a man who became famous by refusing to even acknowledge his heritage.  “I’m not black,” Simpson said, “I’m O.J.”

Never-the-less, this documentary, which runs seven hours and forty-seven minutes and was divided into five parts as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, wishes to see this man through the broader spectrum of race relations in this country in the closing years of the 20th century.  O.J.’s rise and fall seemed to parallel an America that had racial fire in its blood by the time the 60s were coming to a close.

*   *   *   *   *

Part One deals with his origins, of how young Orenthal James Simpson came out of the  projects in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and entered USC in the mid-60s and became a prodigy, a celebrity on campus who no one seemed to single out or acknowledge as black.  He was young, he was good looking, he was a terrific football player who won the Heisman Trophy in 1968 and became a celebrity.  Yet, it was a celebrity that was bred behind the sheltered walls of USC.  Outside those walls were the Watts riots, the murder of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, the rise of The Black Panthers and, in short, the fires of racial discord between the black community of L.A. and the LAPD that would continue for the next thirty years.  Edelman shows us the high walls of the L.A. Coliseum, seemingly an island that kept O.J. safe and sheltered from a sea of racial discord.

O.J.’s rise to celebrity was rather benign in comparison with more vocal, African-American athletes like Muhammad Ali who was refusing to be drafted, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith who were seen to raise their fists in protest on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Olympic Games.  In the midst of their protest, O.J. minded his P’s and Q’s, hung out (and seemed visibly uncomfortable) with celebrities like Bob Hope and Joe Namath.  It might have seemed that he was kowtowing, but in a way he was charting his own revolutionary path, becoming the first African-American spokesman for several brands, most notably Hertz in a series of commercials that featured the Running Back racing through an airport terminal on foot as bystanders cheered him on.  We are caught off-guard when O.J.’s childhood friend Joe Bell points out that all of the bystanders in the commercial (by design) just happen to be white.  Unlike other athletes of color at the time, O.J. charted a path to celebrity by courting white America.

Personally, something was driving Simpson to succeed.  The movie opens with a voice-over by the man himself who admits that his dream was simply to be loved for being O.J.  He wanted to be famous, he wanted it badly and he came through a difficult childhood to get there.  He grew up in the projects raised by his mother while father was only an occasional presence.  His father was gay, and Bell retorts that this was the most shameful avenue for a black man.  “Back in our day,” he says,”that was the worst thing in the world that you could ever think about, an African American man being homosexual.”  The particulars of his early childhood can be seen in the choices that O.J. would make for most of his life particularly with regards to women, relations with friends and the construct of the identity that he would forge for himself.

*   *   *   *   *

Part Two focuses on Simpson’s life and career after leaving the NFL, dealing mainly with his instantly difficult relationship with Nicole Brown and his rampant womanizing.  He moves further away from the black community, buying a house in Brentwood – his “Graceland,” a friend recalls.  The difficulties with Nicole begin almost immediately – after their first date, a friend of Brown notes that Simpson’s future wife had ripped blue jeans to which she responded “He got a little rough.”  The tumult that follows is interesting in that Edelman’s shows us how O.J.’s image made way for a lot of permissiveness to his destructive behavior, in particular domestic abuse, in part because of the misinterpretations of masculinity and the people who shared his immediate space.  Joe Bell, a childhood friend of Simpson, remembers how much of O.J.’s ability to manipulate, how he manipulated his friends and how he manipulated women.  He recalls how, as a teenager, O.J. blatantly stole Al Cowling’s girlfriend Marguerite Whitley and later married her then years later divorced her to be with Nicole.

At this moment, O.J.’s aspirations fell through as he struggled to find work as an actor and then a businessman.  He lobbied for, and lost the role of Coalhouse Walker in Milos Foreman’s Ragtime to Howard Rollins, Jr.  He talked about one day running a movie studio at the moment when his aspirations to be an actor were proving to be fruitless – he even fumbled as a color commentator and was dismissed from Monday Night Football.  Then, while the larger pieces of his post-football career are falling apart, he struggles to maintain control in his marriage.  Reports start to surface of domestic abuse

At the same moment that O.J.’s relationship with Nicole was becoming dangerous, Edelman again widens the scope to show us the parallel of how the state of race relations between the LAPD and poor and middle class minorities were heating up, ultimately ignited by two acquittals: First of the woman guilty of the murder of teenager Latasha Harlins and second, the police who had beaten Rodney King.

King’s incident, famously caught on tape by bystander George Holliday, set off an international firestorm when the acquittal led to the L.A. riots.  How this ties in with O.J. is kind of fascinating.  We learn later in the film that some of the jurors in O.J.’s murder trial voted not guilty as revenge for the acquittal in the King case.  That’s the greatness of this film (and why it gets my Armchair Oscar for Best Picture), it establishes a foundation for what would come later in the trial when the “race card” came into play, when Mark Fuhrman and the entire LAPD became the public face of racial hatred and the minorities effected by it finally have their moment to strike back.

Much of the second segment, however, deals with the deterioration of the relationship between O.J. and Nicole.  Edelman is not shy about establishing O.J.’s control over his former wife, his jealously over her association with other men and his anger and outrage over her attempts to move past him and forge a life and a career for herself.  Nicole was young, beautiful and a free spirit and it seemed to anger O.J. who attempted to exert control over the most mundane aspects of her life.  Over and over again we move through stories of O.J.’s physical and psychological abuse and his manipulation not only of her but of the police.  Nicole, meanwhile, was chained to O.J. by the presence of their children, even still she finally arrived at a moment when she was ready to cut him completely off.  Nicole’s friend, actress Robin Greer, ends this segment with a bone-jangling observation: “There was something almost unattainable about her that he couldn’t quite control, and I think that was part of the attraction, and I think in the final analysis that’s what got her killed.”

*   *   *   *   *

Part Three deals with the immediate aftermath of the murders and the lead-up to the trial.  We see the personal and national response to the murders – the anger of whites and the embracing of O.J. by blacks – the investigation and then Simpson’s famous 75 mile chase by LAPD down the Los Angeles freeway to his home in Brentwood while holding a gun to his own head.  While the episode is pretty straight forward and sticks mainly to the facts, Edelman allows and provokes obvious questions: If he was innocent, why did O.J. run?  Was he really suicidal?  Why didn’t the LAPD simply block his path?  What was at stake for the already shaky reputation of a police department that was seen as racist and violent in a chase that was being seen around the world?  How could they end this pursuit without having it end in tragedy?

After Simpson is finally detained, Edelman spends at least half an hour setting the stage for what will become The Trial of the Century.  In analytical detail, we are introduced one by one to all the players: Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Kardashian, Kato Kaelen, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Mark Fuhrman, Fred Goldman, Gil Garcetti, Barry Sheck, Robert Shapiro, Lance Ito, Daryl Gates, Denise Simpson.  The cast of characters is laid out and so are all the elements for the trial to come, including the difficult jury selection in which Clark disastrously underestimates the input of black women and Chris Darden’s unwise assertion that placing the N-word before black jurors would cloud their judgment.  For Darden and Clark, it becomes painfully obvious that, in many ways, their prosecution team is woefully outmatched and overwhelmed in relation to Simpson’s far superior “Dream Team.”  It’s an uneven match that would point the way for the verdict that was to come.

*   *   *   *   *

Part Four deals, at great length, with the trial itself.  Edelman does a brilliant job of compacting a year’s worth of evidence and testimony and investigation into a two hour package that allows us to see both the prosecution and the defense in the cold light of day; how the prosecution mishandled and misread the situation; how the defense manipulated and redirected certain pieces of invaluable information to pull it back in their favor (i.e. redecorating O.J.’s house with artworks and photos that show that he embraced his heritage – in effect, an effort to make the place see “more black.” and, of course, pulling out all the dirty laundry of the LAPD out into the open – in particular the difficult, and apparently racist career trek of one Mark Fuhrman.  Was the racism relevant to the case?  Why didn’t Judge Ito throw it out?

What we get from this chapter is a clear understanding of why the prosecution team lost, and not just from the ill-advised stunt of having O.J. try on the gloves.  We see that the defense uses the larger scope of what is at stake and, in many ways, uses the outside forces that would propel O.J. to be set free.  It uses the larger issue of the LAPD, the racially-charged atmosphere and the fact that much of the jury was black and had built up a deep hatred of the LAPD after years of abuse and mistreatment.

The recalling of the trial can and will inevitably feel like tabloid renderings, as the unfeeling retelling of a shameful miscarriage of justice seen through the filter of luxuriating and exploiting the tragic deaths of two innocent human beings.  That’s the tapestry of these events no matter how in-depth and investigative they are presented.  However, what separates O.J. Made in America from other recollections of the case is the addition of Edelman’s interview with Bill Hodgman, the Deputy District Attorney who served with Clark and Darden as part of the prosecution team.  In the midst of recalling the events of the trial, Edelman takes us through the scenario of the murders step by gruesome step.  He recalls how Nicole would have answered the door expecting Ron Goldman but instead was met by Simpson who hit her in the head with the blunt of the knife and then stabbed her repeatedly and cut her throat.  He recalls how Goldman might have arrived at the scene before or after the murder and was struck from behind by Simpson who stabbed him about the face and neck.  Then – in a heart-rending moment – Hodgman recalls the stab wound to Ron’s abdomen that caused him to bleed out, how his abdomen filled with blood and ultimately caused his death.  Hodgman’s step-by-step analysis followed by stomach-turning photos of the wounds brings the story home and reminds us of the horror of the crime in question and reminds us of what a shameful circus the whole trial had been.

*   *   *   *   *

Part Five begins with the verdict followed by a joyous celebration by blacks all over the country for the acquittal of a man who had, ironically, become famous by erasing his own race and courting the same white America that now vilified him in the face of his acquittal.  What follows becomes the irony of O.J. Made in America, after his subsequent 1997 civil trial – in which the Brown and Goldman families were awarded $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, thereby finding Simpson “responsible” for the respective murders – O.J.’s life falls into the gutter.  He is taunted by whites where ever he goes.  He is no longer allowed in the white country clubs, of which he had been the sole black member.  He struggles.  In one humiliating moment, just before the house at Brentwood is demolished, Simpson and his manager Mark Gilbert engineer a fake home video of the former running back looking emotional as he takes down the flag at Rockingham and then shooing away the apparently random person (actually Gilbert) who is operating the camera

Still trying to hold on to whatever celebrity he has left, O.J. moves to South Florida (mostly to escape the Goldman family) and begins a shameful spiral, associating himself with unscrupulous hangers-on, thugs and sycophants.  He makes desperate grabs at making money by peddling his sports memorabilia and hiring a ghost writer to pen a nose-thumbing hypothetical account of the murders called “If I Did It,” for which the Goldman’s were rewarded handsomely by the decree of the civil case.  And worse, the release of an embarrassing Punk’d-style pay-per-view special called “Juiced” – a long way from the early shaping of his image by Chrysler and Hertz.

And then, of course, Edelman finally arrives at the bottom of Simpson’s barrel – a stupid, reckless stunt in which O.J. tried to steal back valuable memorabilia from a peddler that he accused of stealing from him.  He went to trial and, with no superstar defense team, he was this time given 33 years in Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center (he served 9 years and was released in 2017, a year after this film was made).  In sending him to Lovelock, the prosecution not only had its revenge but handed down the verdict exactly 13 years to the day after he was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ronald Goldman, Simpson was found guilty of all charges.

I’ve seen O.J. Made in America three times now and every time it reveals something new (an eight-hour documentary inevitably will).  It’s about so many things.  It’s about race, murder, domestic abuse, the rise to fame, the fall from grace.  It’s about criminal justice, grieving families, race relations, police procedures.  It’s about our culture and how it sees itself.  It’s about how we see our celebrities at their best and at their worst, and about our own willingness or unwillingness to prosecute them in our own minds because they have spent so much time as part of our lives.  It’s about the dangers of the need for celebrities.  At the center it’s about Citizen Simpson, a flawed individual who had it all and only had himself to blame for letting it all blow away.

Best Actor

Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea)
The Nominees:
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantasic), Denzel Washington (Fences)

Denzel Washington (Fences)
My Nominees: Michael Barbieri (Little Men), Adam Driver (Paterson), Ralph Finnes (A Bigger Splash), Tom Hanks (A Hologram for a King), Michael B. Jordan (Creed),

Casey Affleck has never been an actor that I could easily warm to; his characters always seem cold and distant.  When he affects a silent introspection on the screen (which he does a lot) I have a difficult time getting into his head.  That’s not to say that he has to play likable in order for me to like his performance but I need some measure of getting to the person inside.

Such was the case with his performance as Lee Chandler in Kenneth Lonergan’s comic oddity Manchester By the Sea, playing a self-centered depressive jerk who is forced to think of someone else when he inherits custody of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) when his brother Joe dies of a heart ailment.  The performances are fine, I suppose, but Affleck is giving a difficult performance in the middle of a movie that I really found hard to care about.  I appreciated the fact that I was being challenged by the plight of an unlikable character, but there was never a moment when I generally cared what happened to him.

Affleck’s win was something of a head-scratcher because it happened in the middle of a much publicized sexual harassment scandal at a time when the #metoo movement had already made hash out of the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey.  In handing him the award, presenter Brie Larson refused to applaud and several others were ambivalent to his win as Best Actor.  But, for myself, I want to make it clear that this is not the reason that I am overlooking him.  My point here is to rate the quality of his work, not the headlining of his personal life.

To be honest, I didn’t expect Affleck to win.  The actor that I had pegged to win this award was Denzel Washington who, after thirty years as an actor became a triple threat by writing, directing and acting a beautiful adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences.  He did a stellar job on all counts and gave the best performance of his career.

In a performance that challenges the male role in more ways than one, Washington plays Troy Maxon, a garbage collector in the 1950s who is supremely confident about his ability to provide for his family, largely to a fault.  He’s the kind of man who overwhelms those around him with the information that because he’s the salt-of-the-Earth working man that it somehow gives a pass to his indiscretions.  He floats on an alpha-male current, believing that he is not only the king of his castle, he is also the dominant male over his loving wife Rose (played in a magnificent performance by supporting Actress winner Viola Davis) and the overbearing father to his son Cory (Jovan Adepo).  This is a toxicity that he hands out like a parishioner passing out the program on Sunday morning.

Yet, Troy keeps those around him in good spirits by force of his personality, particularly when the bottle is passed around.  Every payday, he holds court in his backyard of his Pittsburgh home, regaling his friends with wild and increasingly drunken tales – like the oft told story about wrestling with death – that Rose is able to reign in when they get too out of shape.

Troy and Rose’s home is the conduit from which come various people in their lives.  Often through the door comes his eldest son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) who is always asking for money as he skates toward a wayward music career.  On occasion comes Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) who sustained an injury during World War II that left him mentally impaired and has moved out of the house, meaning that he no longer pays rent which puts Troy’s family in a financial burden.  And, always around, is Troy’s best friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) a good-natured soul who knows that Troy is deeply flawed but stands by him anyway.

Troy is the anchor of this story, for better and for worse.  We sense in him a bitter and angry man who holds on to the small but not unimportant pieces of his life like a lion guarding his den.  He came from an abusive home though he admired his father for keeping home and family in check.  He is bitter about his prospects in life.  This is the 1950s and he has come to work as a garbage collector because his prospects in life have dried up due to his age.  He was once a promising baseball player for the Negro League but his age and the stifling morass of segregation kept him from advancing to the major leagues.  Years later, he is angry at life for stealing his chance at a promising career.  In many ways, this bitterness leaves him in a state of victimhood that causes him to occasionally abandon his family and the man he is suppose to be for them.  This really comes to the surface when he becomes angry with Cory when he learns that he is trying out for his high school football team.

Troy inwardly feels that he is chained to the small pieces of his life and tries to escape these confines, which is why he tries – and succeeds – at moving up in position from collector to driver.  But this need for escape also comes out in an affair the he has with Alberta, a woman that he met at the local bar.  But, Troy’s failings as a man, as a father and as a husband are not something that he is willing to deal with.  His toxic shell prevents him from admitting his own failings and his response is to expect others to help him deal with his failings despite how destructive they are.  This comes out most abundantly when Rose discovers that Alberta is pregnant with his child and Troy expects Rose to simply raise the child as one of their own when Alberta dies in childbirth.

The core of Troy’s inner-truth can be seen as having come from many directions.  He bears an upfront defensiveness that he seems to excuse with the fact that he works hard and puts food on the table.  Yet, underneath  beats the heart of a man who knows full-well that many of the failings of his life exist largely in the colour of his skin.  Now past his prime, or at least the age when he could do anything about it, the larger offerings of life have passed him by.  Deep down he knows that he has arrived at the stage when his life has stopped giving him things and has started to take them away.

His mind and his strategy for life are bound up metaphors of baseball.  He is bitter about the chance that he missed.  He might have been a promising prospect when playing with The Negro League during the 1930s, but he was forced to leave because of his advancing age, and the colour of his skin prevented him from moving to the Major Leagues.  From this comes a deep inner-anger, a deep-seeded sense of victimhood that causes him to believe that he is owed some measure of leisure and pleasure (hence: his adultery).  He feels himself worthy of something to replace what was lost in the pursuit of his sports career.

Ironically, this is something that he restricts from everyone else.  From Rose, he nags about her spending extra money on lottery tickets.  From Cory, he refuses to allow him to try out for football.  From Lyons, Troy expresses distaste with the fact that he won’t set aside the would-be music career and get a paying job.  His refusal to allow anyone else to take their own path stems largely from his own sense of how he provides for his family.  Having a steady job and not aiming too high is largely the path that Troy sees for his sons.  He presents himself as outwardly angry and disapproving of their dreams but perhaps it has to do with his love for them, in not wanting them to face the same kind of disappointment that he has experienced.  Troy is a difficult man to engage with, because he sees his flaws as virtue.  He’s a decent man who is difficult to associate with in our minds.  We pity him for his failings in life but admire his tenacity, however difficult it may be for us to process.

Best Actress

Emma Stone (La La Land)
The Nominees: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Ruth Negga (Loving), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Natalie Portman (Jackie)
My Nominees:
Amy Adams (Arrival), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloan), Lily Collins (Rules Don’t Apply), Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Ruth Negga (Loving), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Before her Oscar nominated performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, I was quick to finalize Emma Stone as “cute as a button.”  It was true, but something in her performance in that film revealed a tough exterior that I admit I hadn’t seen before.  I championed her to get the Oscar for that performance and I wish she had because her work in La La Land pulls me back pathetically to “cute as a button.”  La La Land was a sweet confection but, for me, was a movie of no great significance.  I admire it without necessarily loving it.  And with that punctuation also goes Stone’s performance.  To be brutally honest, I felt that Mia Dolan was a part that any actor could play.  Nothing about the performance stood out.

Greatness, for 2016, came from Natalie Portman in her much admired but ultimately dismissed performance as Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larraine’s devastating Jackie, a movie that seemed to put the actress (and us) through the emotional ringer.  And from Portman came a flurry of notes that we hadn’t really seen from her before, not even in her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan.

Jackie is an American film directed by a Chilean director and made with a very European sensibility.  It tells the story of Jackie Kennedy before, after and for the most part during, those four horrifying days in 1963 from the moment that she witnessed her husband’s brutal murder until the moment that she buried him.  Yet, Larraine does this in a way that feels like the aftermath of a traffic accident.  In the wake of the Jackie’s personal tragedy comes the whirling maelstrom of confusion, pain and a volley of unanswerable questions.

Through her eyes, we see the rushing tide of events and of emotional turmoil; sorrow, agony, anger, and emotional crisis both inward and outward that were crushing her in those terrible days.  For her, it was a horror show.  The world and the course of history were rushing at her like a runaway freight train.  From that moment on, it is reasonable to imagine that she may have felt as if she had been hit by one.

Jackie is a masterful study in human crisis, of how human beings deal with extreme tragedy and the immediate effects, particularly when they are in the public eye.  Through Portman’s performance, the movie takes an event we know very well and humanizes it so that it lifts itself above the countless array of matter-of-course documentaries and hokey dramatic recreations that sensationalize and/or trivialize the events of the assassination.  Instead, this film is an intimate and closely observed bio-pic of the inward personal Hell that besieged the suddenly widowed first lady as she struggled not only to get a handle on what had happened but also to deal with the myriad of circumstances that were to follow.  She questions herself, her role as a mother, human nature, and at the same time wrestles with her own spirituality which she frequently lays out to a kindly Irish priest (John Hurt) who is caring but also very matter of fact.

A very public personality in the immediacy of the assassination, the eyes of the world are upon her but Jackie finds that an onslaught of emotion and expectations of propriety are laid thick upon herself and her image.  At this moment when she finds herself bombarded by events, the worst is that in a country broken down in sorrow, she can find little time to get a handle on her own.  She finds that even in the torment of those events, she is still being instructed on how to act, what to say, and what the proper emotional notes are.

Yet, the chaos of the moment is unrelenting.  She not only has to deal with the moment, but also the rush of transition of administration from Kennedy to Johnson.  The White House staff is not unsympathetic but they are understandably concerned about the future of the country, their government, their personal lives and their careers.  Very quickly boxes are being packed and personal effects are being moved in and out of The White House before she has even had a chance to inform Caroline that her father has died.

The staff rushes to get things in order, but always at the center is Jackie who returns to a White House that feels like it has been hit by a tornado.  The editing and cinematography and production design  remind us a bit of The Shining.  There is a very Kubrickian feel to the White House bedroom – the furniture is too perfect, too perfectly placed.  Everything is organized physically while the woman at the center stands in disarray.

The narrative structure feels chaotic but in a very functional way.  We see the rushing of events unfolding in a whirlwind of information, outward public response and the leanings on Jackie of all of the things that have to get done in a matter of hours; the funeral, the press, the final resting place and the tumult of questions of what will come afterwards.  It is all crumbling before her as she sees her world coming apart.  “I have nothing of my own,” she tells a journalist, and it has more than one meaning.  Jackie wrestles with grief matched with the expectations that weigh heavy upon her shoulders.  Everyone is out for themselves and the only person who shares her grief is Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) whose heart and soul ache at the negation of prospect for the future that he and Jack envisioned for the country.  Both Bobby and Jackie are broken, lonely people faced with a cold reality that neither they, nor the world, would have ever thought possible – Camelot in smithereens.

Portman cannot have had much fun playing this role, but she reaches down into the depths of her soul to give a performance that wells up from anger and confusion.  Portman has always been one of the most expressive actors but here she manages total control over her physical performance.  She is an actress whose emotional states always lie just under the skin and here she exerts control over those emotions from grief to anger to frustration to bitterness.  Jackie’s situation is rocked by chaos, but Portman seems able to modulate that turmoil in a way that is tangible and filled with great empathy.  We can feel it.

The first time we see Jackie she is walking around outside the house at Hyannis Port just one week after the assassination.  Her lovely face is a mask of sorrow and pain and confusion from which it will not recover.  Through the process of grief and the acting out of the role she is expected to play, we can always sense that under the surface something inside of her is screaming.  She is allowed very few moments of solitude.  Portman is given a scene here that is as startling as it is heartbreaking.  Jackie, just having returned to The White House from Dallas, is left alone in her bedroom still wearing the strawberry pink Chanel suit spattered with her husband’s blood.  As she strips out of her clothes and into the shower, Portman is allowed notes of anguish and sorrow and pain that this fine actress has never been allowed to display before.  It is a stunning, wordless three-minute scene of pure acting, pure emotion.

The story of the immediacy of the assassination is framed by two historical events, one after the shooting and another before.  The major framework is the scene at Hyannis Port one week after the shooting, when a bitter and beleaguered Jackie gives an interview to Life Magazine journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup).  He asks the standard questions but she is less willing to give him standard answers.  Understanding the temptation on his part to sensationalize the interview, she gives him bold and unguarded information, including a gut-wrenching retelling of that moment, and then instructs him not to print it.  She does this several times based around everything from the shooting itself to the information that “I don’t smoke,” which she does constantly.  It is a manner of control over the press that she has never been able to have before.

The other framing device is where the filmmaking really strikes us.  It takes place during Jackie’s famous Emmy-winning Valentine’s Day television tour of the White House in 1961.  The first lady is instructed in her performance for the camera, especially the smile that we sense is hard to maintain.  But something about the filmmaking here is really kind of interesting.  The recreation of the television special is seen in black and white, of course, but the sound is muffled as it might have sounded on television at the time.  With that, Jackie’s words don’t seem to be her own.  There is a strange disconnect between what she is saying and what we are hearing.  She goes through the motions as CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood (Stéphane Höhn) asks the standard questions but her lips seem to be moving to pre-recorded words.  I initially assumed that it was a flaw, but then it struck me that the disconnection in her words represents the way in which the public persona of Jackie was separate from the real person that she was in life.  Seeing her through the prism of the new medium of television we see that an image has been created, a distorted image that is far from the truth.

I was stunned by how brilliantly crafted this film is, especially when so many recent bio-pics (The Butler, Jobs, 42, Get On Up, The Iron Lady) aren’t so much interested in their subjects as they are in rushing toward the next red letter moment.  Here, the focus isn’t on recreating moments and getting all the furniture in place, it’s on the emotional devastation heaped upon a woman whose image had been lionized by history and how she negotiated the difficult path through the darkest moment in America’s recent national consciousness.

This is a great American film with a great performance at its center.  Portman occupies a brilliant portrait of tragedy and loss and the attempts to visualize the sorrow and grief of an event that this country has never been able to lay to rest.  Jackie is by no means a happy movie, but it gives a face to a tragic event that has been portrayed by history for its details and less for its emotions.  America doesn’t have any mythologies as it did with the Kennedy family and that notion ties up the film’s ending.  Jackie stands in much the same position that King Arthur did at the end of the musical “Camelot” at the realization that the grand spirit and lofty ideals of the once-proud kingdom are gone. “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

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About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.