Jackie and Hidden Figures

I spent a good portion of my weekend in the early 1960s. First, Jackie, the impressionistic, rather cool story of Jacqueline Kennedy during and shortly after John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Most attention has been paid to Natalie Portman’s masterful performance, which just a short while ago was the favorite for her second Oscar (not so much anymore). Certainly, it’s a technical triumph on the order of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Capote and Colin Firth’s in The King’s Speech. Both involved digging deeply into the character while conquering a major vocal challenge: Truman Capote’s voice was, shall we say, unique, and the king in The King’s Speech had both a stammer and a speech impediment. Portman, Hoffman, and Firth all rose to the challenge by making their speech part of their characters, and not an affectation or odd, unattached characteristic.

Jackie is deliberately Brechtian in its direction and screenplay, and even in the central performance. The film is structured around an interview (think The Usual Suspects without the fun), but moves forward and backward in its presentation of a woman, soaked in grief and anger, who is nevertheless engaged in setting the country’s memory of her husband’s short time in office in Camelot amber. Even the interview, the viewer’s home base, is made somewhat uncomfortable by its distancing cinematography and mise-en-scène. The rest of the time, we are thrown around as in an amusement park ride, from this moment in time to that, and from this reaction to that outburst to the back-and-forth of funeral plans. Fortunately, Portman holds this together with her performance, for the film doesn’t seem to have a specific point of view other than to demonstrate the grieving, controlling, deeply wounded, intelligent, articulate woman who was once our First Lady.

There is something of a dramatic arc in the film’s depiction of the central events surrounding the assassination, including the swearing in of LBJ, Jackie’s state of shock, her crafting the theater of the funeral, and the packing up of the family’s belongings to make way for the new White House occupants. There are also flashbacks to Jackie’s famous television tour of the White House. The big moment, though, comes in a flashback toward the end of the film, as Jackie once again remembers the gruesome details of the actual shooting, which is presented in a manner that’s not exploitative but is nonetheless gruesome and hard to watch.

This is first and last Portman’s film, and will be the definitive Jackie “biography” for a long time. But a few other notes: The actor playing John Kennedy, Caspar Phillipson, is a bit short for the part, but looks a great deal like him, which has resonance for those of us old enough to have been paying attention to the presidency. Also, Peter Sarsgaard really doesn’t look a lot like Bobby Kennedy, but this terrific actor owns the part, and makes his scenes with Portman the highlight of the film, be they scenes of tender protection or angry accusation. Billy Crudup (the interviewer/writer), Greta Gerwig (Jackie’s friend and confidante) and the late John Hurt (Jackie’s priest) are all solid.

Ultimately, the film is more pieces than a whole, but the viewer is left with the strong impression of Jackie as a powerful, conflicted presence who masterfully crafted a perception of her husband that has lasted over half a century and is in little danger of fading. We’re also left with the idea that Portman is an extraordinary actress.

Hidden Figures is this year’s The Blind Side or The Help—not because of subject matter (race) as much as they are all well made, feel-good movies that were popular and don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning Best Picture, in spite of their nomination in that category. Hidden Figures tells the story of three brilliant black women who by virtue of mathematical skill made it into the inner workings of NASA in the early 1960’s and were instrumental in getting our astronauts into space. Facing sexism and racism, the three triumph by virtue of their brains and determination.

The basic facts of their trials and successes are the heart of the story. The three main white characters, however, are either composites of several real people, or were created to represent certain racial and sexist attitudes of the times. (Beware of the “Based on true events” line in the first few moments of the film, or other similar lines in other films.) Yet the story is both heartbreaking and encouraging, and unlike the stories of Red Tails and Free State of Jones, the film version of the events of a great and important story will be contained in a solid and entertaining film that won’t be quickly forgotten.

The “triumph over obstacles” element of the film is at the heart of the film, but the film relaxes enough to include family, romance, the challenges of the space program—especially in light of the Soviet competition—and of course, race in America circa 1961. As enjoyable and as easily watchable as the film is, the institutional racism of the country provokes sadness, anger and deep regret, and is therefore an important if mild reminder of our great national sin. This is a film that should be seen to keep us aware of our recent history, even if the context of the rest of the story threatens to soften its impact.

The film is smooth and goes down easily. The separate bathroom theme is overplayed and stretched out far too long with one character, and doesn’t make the point as much as dilutes it. But that’s the film’s only overstatement. Performances are strong. In a weaker Best Actress year, lead actress Taraji P. Hensen might have copped a nomination for a solid performance. Octavia Spencer is one of the most likeable actresses around, but her nomination here is likely based more on the part and her likability than on meeting the demands of a difficult part (such has her Oscar-winning part in The Help). It’s interesting that the three main white characters, even the two more insensitive ones, are played by relatable actors—Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst—that we could never dislike even while we aren’t tracking with their attitudes. That’s worth an analysis all its own.

The story and treatment of the film will make it enjoyable and long-lived. Other than being the feel-good film of the year, the presentation of racism (even more than sexism) here is a fascinating entry in the lineup of films that address the darker issues of our country’s past. Some could argue that these themes are not addressed with the judgmentalism and edge needed—a point. Others could argue that the treatment is realistic and just sharp enough to be taken in by today’s viewer in a way that sticks—also a point. Talk amongst yourselves….

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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