Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, John Carroll Lynch and Greta Gerwig
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Rated ‘R’ for language, I guess? And some violence at one point?
Runtime 100 minutes
Certain lives are defined by moments. Some you directly control; others, for many of us, we react. Things happen – to us, not by us. It is how we handle those moments that define us.
The defining moments of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life actually happened to her husband, John, in Dallas in 1963. Oswald shot John while the latter was driving in a motorcade. Despite his accomplishments, it is perhaps his defining moment. It was Jackie who had to deal with the fallout. This is the concept behind Pablo Larrain’s film: how Jackie handles, or does not, handle herself. The film focuses on the days after the assassination; less a wretched, all encompassing biopic and more a laser-focused character study. Our worst days reveal our truest selves. The death of a spouse is hard for anyone, Jackie has to grieve as the First Lady of the United States, complete with all the political ramifications that entails. Lesser folks have cracked under so much pressure. Jackie rises above.
The film belongs to Natalie Portman. Whether she is chatting with an interviewer a week or so after the fact, barely holding back the tears after the motorcade has reached safety or just walking through the empty White House drinking wine, Portman inhabits the role of Kennedy utterly and completely. It is the kind of acting that wins awards, and rightfully so. I was lucky enough to see the film at the Alamo Drafthouse which aired many interviews of the real Jackie beforehand which primed the audience for what to expect. Portman’s performance is not one to one mimicry; the real Jackie was obviously taller with a different pitch but it embodies the spirit of one of our great First Ladies. The breathy, mouse-like voice Portman uses had to cause great vocal harm. Though it does take a while to wrap your head around the idea that any human being can talk the way she does.
Portman commands the screen. A good thing, too, because Jackie’s main failing is its lack of connection amongst the character. First Lady Kennedy was an isolated figure, a sure comment on the power (and lack thereof) that women lead in the political realm back then – and to this day. This manifests itself in cutting everything short. As critics, we usually want scenes to end sooner; here, I want them to go on a few moments longer. Films are ultimately about connection between characters and one never gets the sense that there is anything happening between folks. The supporting players – Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), even Jackie’s kids – engage not in acting, but in historical reenactment. There is a potentially moving scene where Jackie encounters the Secret Service agent who was present in Dallas and you are crying out for some form of connection, yet none ever comes. When we flash back to the harrowing attack (rendered with wonderful sound and violence), the agent has faded into the background.
I am not huge on my history of Camelot. Larrain’s tale implies that Bobby and Jackie had some sort of thing, a choice I cannot explain. The interactions between Portman and Sarsgaard, excellent actors each, are a wealth of politicking and above-average Boston accents. There is care and love there, but not much. The bulk of the film is told in vignettes to a reporter (Billy Crudup) and here, the strongest potential for a true connection is lost. Their back and forth is wonderful; the dialogue is crisp and cutting, but cold.
In fact, the strongest relationship in the movie is between Jackie and Jack, her dead husband. It makes sense, obviously, however, we see very little of President Kennedy to make an impact. She loved him, despite his many flaws. Let me hear more of that.
On the technical level, Jackie is a love letter to the fashions of our most stylish First Lady. Can we call it truly great costume design when there are books devoted to Onassis’ fashion? Regardless, the famous pink outfit is rendered perfectly, as are all of her many designs and patterns. The camerawork is deliberate in its unsettling nature; characters are filmed a little too straightforward, or a little too close up. Larrain and his DP Stephane Fontaine attack you and insert you up close and personal to Jackie’s many meltdowns and build-ups. You are not so much an impersonal voyeur but, it somehow feels, the watching ghost of President Kennedy, checking in on his beloved.
There is an abhorrent and distracting Eyes Wide Shut ‘tone’ that is played under almost every moment of Jackie. Nails on the chalkboard and there just to further unsettle you. The score grated on me, a dissonant wreck for two hours. The film is not actually two hours, it is significantly less than that. However, it lingers and drags especially in the middle.
Portman shines and is potentially on her way to her second Oscar of her enduring career. Jackie is a fine example of showcasing grace under fire. Jackie Kennedy had a lot to deal with and by all accounts, she was incapable of it. But trying times and all. She reached down and created a legend, a myth, that still lives on today.