Mythmaking Machines

How Jackie and Barry both shore up and subvert the very important person biopic template.

natalie barry.
Natalie Portman in Jackie and Devon Terrell in Barry.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Black Bear Pictures and Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Biopics are the prestige-movie version of franchise films, so it’s not surprising that the Toronto International Film Festival, which among other things serves as the unofficial kickoff for awards season, was full of them this year. A movie about a well-known figure is already imbued with some of that figure’s importance, and even an unknown true story acquires a veneer of verisimilitude. When the Weinstein Company took out “for your consideration” ads in the leadup to awards season for 2014’s The Imitation Game, based on the story of World War II codebreaker Alan Turing, reading “Honor the man. Honor the film,” it was merely stating upfront what other, less awards-thirsty studios normally imply.

Jackie and Barry, both of which screened at TIFF this year, follow the important person template, promising from their titles on down intimate looks at the lives of iconic political figures: Jacqueline Kennedy and Barack Obama, respectively. The former, which stars Natalie Portman and had its world premiere in Venice the week before, was instantly touted as an awards contender and promptly acquired by Fox Searchlight for a December release; Barry was recently picked up by Netflix. But both make interesting alterations to the familiar biopic form, and in Jackie’s case, nearly turn it inside out.

Pablo Larraín’s portrait of a grieving Kennedy in the days after JFK’s assassination is framed by the grieving first lady’s conversation with a figure identified only as the Journalist (Billy Crudup), who’s come to her Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, home for an exclusive and often contentious interview. At times, their encounter, clearly modeled on her sit-down with Life magazine’s Theodore H. White, plays like therapy or, more to the point, a grief counseling session, with Jackie tearfully recalling the look on her dead husband’s face as they sped toward the airport. But it’s more often a battle of wits, one that the journalist is clearly losing. Jackie secures early on the right to redact and rewrite her answers, using him as a repository for her most intimate feelings and then declaring them off the record. She even questions the value of the whole enterprise, given the medium of print’s shaky hold on media supremacy. “When something is written down, does that make it true?” she asks. “It’s all we have,” the journalist responds. “It was,” Jackie says. “We have television now.”

JFK’s assassination is at the heart of Jackie, but the film devotes more time to the 1962 CBS special where the first lady showed the newly restored White House to a television audience of some 80 million. “A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” which aired for an hour on Valentine’s Day, was the first network TV documentary deliberately framed for a female audience, and it presents Kennedy as a cross between a presidential historian and the nation’s homemaker-in-chief. But documents revealed by the John F. Kennedy Library for the broadcast’s 50th anniversary detailed the extent to which Jackie was not only the program’s star but its author, editing the script to make sure the private donors who funded the restoration were mentioned by name. Even when the president “drops in” near the end of the program to see how things are progressing, it feels like a moment she’s in control of, putting her back in her place but also reaffirming her power.

Larraín, working from a script by former Today show producer Noah Oppenheim, places Jackie Kennedy in a long line of political image-makers, including those in his movies No, where Gael García Bernal plays an advertising exec tasked with selling the Chilean populace on the prospect of democratic elections, and Neruda, in which Bernal plays a government thug intent on derailing the radical poet’s career. His Jackie isn’t always onstage, but she never stops being aware of her own image, even when’s pouring out her anguish to John Hurt’s Catholic priest.

In Jackie, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish whether Portman is playing the role or the role is playing her. She seems off-balance at first, like an actor who’s been handed her script a few minutes before going onstage; her black wig and boxy suit hang off her slim frame as if they’ve been grabbed out of a costume trunk. Her speech is a flat mid-Atlantic monotone, so calculated it goes beyond the numbness of grief and suggests she’s being piloted from afar. It’s a great performance, but it’s also at times barely distinguishable from a deliberately bad one.

While others rush to fill the vacuum of power, Jackie’s Jackie fixates on her husband’s legacy. Will his death mean something, or will it become the answer to a trivia question? Will he take his place alongside Abraham Lincoln, or with William McKinley and James Garfield? She resists entreaties to change out of her blood-stained suit until the complete image of her grief has been captured by the cameras, and she argues that JFK’s funeral should be modeled on Lincoln’s. She feeds the journalist a reference to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot, with its lyrics about “one brief, shining moment,” and repeats it to make sure he doesn’t miss the point. She’s the Eliza to JFK’s Hamilton, buttressing his legacy and ensuring her own place in the narrative.

Barry isn’t nearly so sophisticated in its mythmaking. Adam Mansbach’s script, which follows Obama’s first year at Columbia University, is crammed with leaden winks to the 20-year-old’s future; after he expresses cynicism about the political process to a fellow student, she responds, incredulously, “So what, you don’t believe in change?” (Womp womp.) But the movie arrives at the right time, as the infectious possibility of Obama’s early years in office has been swamped by the prospect of him being replaced by a candidate who openly appeals to racists and suggested for years (though he now falsely claims otherwise) that the nation’s first black president was not a real American.

Barry was directed by Vikram Gandhi, a fellow Columbia grad whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India before he was born, and it’s especially attuned to the tensions the young Obama faces as a biracial student who was partly raised abroad. When people ask where he’s from, a hint of resignation creeps into Australian actor Devon Terrell’s performance: He knows that answering the question—Honolulu, Seattle, Jakarta—will only prompt more. He’s not comfortable at the black student union or on the nearby streets of Harlem, where a sympathetic book vendor offers him a copy of The Souls of Black Folk, but when he starts dating that fellow student, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, her white liberal parents raise an eyebrow; you get the sense that they’re all right in theory with their daughter dating a person of color, but they’d rather not have it sprung on them at the Yale Club. The problem, he explains to her later, is that she’s “not used to being visible.” He may have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but Barry feels seen, and scrutinized, everywhere he goes. He’s always the other.

Although Barry is intent on dropping hints about Obama’s fate, we never catch a glimpse of the Obama depicted in Southside With You, the pumped-up community organizer who thinks he can make a difference in the world: “Politics is bullshit,” says Barry’s Barry. “The president is an actor.” Although it’s set earlier than Southside, Barry feels like its spiritual sequel, or the darkness-before-the-dawn middle of a trilogy. Where most biopics concentrate on great figures doing great things, Barry leaves it to us to connect this lost young man with the leader he would become. Jackie knows what story she wants to tell; Barry is still staring at a blank page.