Courtesy of TIFF

Amy Nicholson At TIFF: The Festival Gets Presidential With Barry, Jackie, And LBJ

Across three films, there’s a nuanced portrait of Obama, a star turn for Natalie Portman, and a sentimentally cranky vision of LBJ

Please, somebody buy Barry. The up-for-sale Barack Obama biopic about the future president’s first semester at Columbia University is, like the man himself, a charmer with empathy and depth. Australian newcomer Devon Terrell nails Obama’s staccato speech, curious eyes, and smooth, left-handed bank shot. The slender actor is a perfect impersonator — except for a bit where he introduces himself as “Bar-rack,” as in the place where soldiers sleep.

Yet the film is more than mimicry. Adam Mansbach’s script would be as good if it was pure fiction about a dude named Greg. Instead of loading the film down with in-jokes and foreshadowing — tempting, given several chitchat scenes where people ask the Occidental transfer student where he’s from — director Vikram Gandhi is interested in showing us the man no one dreamed would ascend to power, let alone himself. This Barack is a 21-year-old chain-smoker who’s cynical about politics and marriage. And why not, when his parents have been married six times between them and Reagan’s just been elected? We see him as we never see him: ignored, dismissed, and, as his basketball friend PJ (the fantastic Jason Mitchell of Straight Outta Compton) dubs him, Invisible, thanks to the Ralph Ellison paperback he brought to the neighborhood court.

Invisible isn’t exactly right. Young Barack blends, or tries to, in both his all-white classes and his mostly black block. Today, his charisma makes that look easy. But that toggling takes a lot of effort for the only half-Kansan, half-Kenyan kid from Hawaii and Jakarta in the entire school, perhaps the world. It exhausts him to win over his white girlfriend’s (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch) Connecticut parents and the homeboy on the stoop who aggressively bums cigarettes. I’ve never seen a film this intelligent about the racial, economic, and class divides that compartmentalize people while focusing on how — or if — they can be healed. Unlike the hotheads of Do the Right Thing, the last New York flick with such bold ambitions, Obama is a one-man mediator. He has to be, otherwise he won’t fit in anywhere. And instead of Spike Lee’s comedic opera, which found truth in bright, bold colors, Barry has a light touch, a casual smile that masks the pain. Does Obama do the right thing? Not always, and we respect his journey more for it.

Time for a proper trip to the White House — emphasis on proper. Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the most famous widow of the ’60s, welcomes us into the Lincoln bedroom with a reenactment of Mrs. Kennedy’s 1962 tour of what she insisted on calling “the people’s home.” She'd been living there for 13 months and had already spent $2 million restoring the White House from a bland mansion to America’s presidential museum, or really, Camelot’s castle. And Lady Kennedy was America’s queen: dignified, aloof, feminine, flawed.

Casting Portman as the iconic first lady is an apt marriage of character and actress. Like Jackie, Portman is self-conscious and chilly, an aesthete uncomfortable with weakness. Even when she won the Oscar for Black Swan, I found her performance more like a perfectionist’s imagination of insanity — she felt less alive than animated, she wanted us to applaud how hard she was working. Yet in Jackie, that artificiality is a bonus. Jackie, too, was obsessed with surfaces: what to wear, what to say, and how to look while saying it. On the morning of her husband’s murder, she’s putting on lipstick in the mirror while practicing short remarks in Spanish. “Estoy feliz de estar en el gran estado de Texas,” she coos in a breathy Marilyn Monroe tremolo. Later, she’ll admit that her husband didn’t sleep next to her that last night, and that he didn’t sleep next to her often. (Perhaps he was with the real Monroe.)

This sounds shallow, but director Larraín elevates her superficiality to a political statement. Who else would have the courage — yes, courage — to wear her bloody, pink suit for the entire day so that photographs must bear witness to her husband’s sacrifice alongside LBJ being sworn in? She barely spoke; her stained Chanel spoke for her. Who else would stage-manage her husband’s funeral procession to ensure that he’d be mourned — and remembered — like Lincoln instead of forgotten assassination victims like Garfield and McKinley, and do so knowing that it must be done because JFK hadn’t been in office long enough to do anything truly memorable like freeing the slaves? Who else would have the hauteur to take a long cigarette drag before a reporter while tersely insisting, “I don’t smoke”?

Jackie is a brittle little film that is destined to be overpraised. People are already predicting Natalie Portman’s second Oscar, mostly for the scenes of her sobbing and scrubbing off the president’s brains. (And that Fox Searchlight, owners of the definitely overpraised, beleaguered Birth of a Nation, snatched up the rights hints they’re betting on a new awards show pony.) Still, there are a few scenes I adored — Jackie drunk on vodka and trying on all of her black dresses, a shot where she silently judges Lady Bird Johnson’s taste in wallpaper. Mostly, I can’t help admiring how the movie dignifies dignity, a quality we’ve downgraded in favor of ranking officials on criteria like, “Would drink a beer with,” or “Was hilarious on TV.” Mrs. Kennedy understood the symbolism of her role in our nation’s history. She didn’t wear that crown lightly.

Courtesy of TIFF

For a cross-examination of Camelot, I followed up Jackie with Rob Reiner’s sentimentally cranky LBJ, which stars Woody Harrelson as the schlumpy Senate veteran forced to play sidekick to a popular pretty boy. It’s an unflattering role. Harrelson’s LBJ is seen wiping his ass on the toilet and eating his feelings with a gallon of ice cream. Mrs. Kennedy would die of shame. But where Jackie is an ode to appearances, LBJ is about the hard, thankless work nobody ever sees: the late-night phone calls to shore up support, the private dinner where he tries to win over an important Southern bigot (Richard Jenkins) to vote for the Civil Rights Act with Texan straight talk. “You’re a racist,” he grunts. “But you’re a good man.”

We don’t treasure LBJ the way we worship JFK. We’re always conflating charisma with greatness. But you could argue that it was Johnson who paved the way for an Obama presidency. “John Kennedy gave people hope,” says Harrelson's LBJ in his first statement to Congress. “Now we are gonna give them results.”