When I left my apartment in Brooklyn for John F. Kennedy International Airport, late at night on November 8th, neither Hilary Rodham Clinton nor Donald J. Trump had yet secured the 270 electoral votes necessary to be elected the 45th president of the United States. By the time I got through security checks and made it to my gate—where TV screens were broadcasting returns from key battleground states—the race was called. Of course, I needn’t hear the result: I saw it on the faces of the people waiting to board, a mix of utter shock and overwhelming concern that the future of our republic would be determined by the most inexperienced, unqualified, and roundly disreputable person to ever hold the highest office.
Arriving in Mexico half a day later felt something like an out-of-body experience—and a steady stream of Dos Equis, margaritas, mai tais, piña coladas, and tequila flowing freely from the bars, restaurants, and mini-fridges of Cabo San Lucas’s Marina Fiesta hotel did little to dispel the feeling of having escaped some hell for an idyllic afterlife. Inevitably, though, myself and the other American journalists—alternately mocked and consoled by our counterparts from Canada and around the world—had to return home to face the reality of a Trump presidency, and the work to be done in order to prevent historic levels of bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia from further degrading a nation with already plenty of bad legacies to live down.
The films programmed at the fifth annual Los Cabos International Film Festival offered plenty examples of legacies lived up to and not—neglected and obsessed over. The festival’s opening-night selection, Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, even related the theme of legacy to the topical concern of the American presidency. The film follows First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) through the period immediately following President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, and the quiet panic of a woman who’d already lost two infants and now not only a husband, but also a cherished home.
Larraín focusses much of Jackie’s distress around an existential concern, providing two framing devices for his film: a 1963 interview conducted at a widowed Jackie’s home in Hyannis Port, M.A. by Life magazine’s Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) and a televised tour of the restored White House that the first lady gave to Charles Collingwood of CBS News in 1962. Just the contrast of the two mediums is enough to suggest what JFK’s death meant to his wife’s legacy, or at least what she perceived it meant—and yet the filmmaker is careful not to imply that this icon’s greatest concern is for herself.
Larraín’s Jackie is a complex figure, one whose various fears, apprehensions, and contradictions are accounted for through the conflation of personal and public loss. Jackie is a film that often looks and plays like a feature-length expansion of Lana Del Rey’s JFK-themed “National Anthem” music video: The scenes of the late president—played, interchangeably, by Brody and Aiden Weinberg—are no less fleshed out than those with A$AP Rocky in the role. At the film’s center, though, Portman’s character impresses as both a clever theoretical construction (the wife of a president who devoted her time in the White House to resuscitating the memories of presidents past, finding herself suddenly assuming the role of assuring her own husband’s historical memory) and a figure of immense emotional weight.
Larraín’s reflexively iconographic images vacillate between immediately recognizable scenes like that of the Kennedys’ fated motorcade and contrastingly, bizarrely unfamiliar ones like a tense backseat ride between Jackie and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) on the way to the morgue. And these images play directly to an unstable historical record, better and more appropriately even than Larraín’s last biopic, Neruda. One sequence in particular dazzles for its accumulation of meaning: Portman’s Jackie rides in a car during JFK’s funeral procession, her face glimpsed through a window that simultaneously reflects the image of civilian onlookers—except this image isn’t one of Larraín’s own devising, but appropriated archival footage.
Jackie is a surface-level film that’s about concern for surfaces: Defending her decision to spend great deals of tax payer money on her restoration project, one admirer of Jackie’s ambitions insists, “People need to know that great men lived here.” Like Jackie herself, Larraín isn’t necessarily convinced by this sentiment, but he’s fascinated by it, and his film appropriately honors its subject’s variously superficial and serious concern for legacy.
The elusive and suddenly quite prolific Terrence Malick is fascinated, and beguiled, by nothing less than the legacy of all existence in his long-gestating, avant-nature doc Voyage of Time, which played the festival—in its lengthier, non-IMAX form—as part of the “Green” sidebar (from the press notes: “well-crafted films which move to reflections on our responsibility as inhabitants of a shared planet”). Malick’s film has some of the strangest juxtapositions he’s ever attempted, evidenced by a move from the high-def-rendered, meteoric demise of the dinosaurs to lo-fi digital of the Arab Spring. It also has more footage of fish and undersea life than it does the kinds of interstellar sequences that galvanized his monumental The Tree of Life, which helps make this feel less like a self-serious, definitive story of our origin and more an idiosyncratic curiosity keyed to Malick’s own mysterious interests.