Overview: In the week after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, his wife, Jackie, is tasked with making impossible decisions to preserve his legacy while grieving publicly and privately. Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 100 minutes.
“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”: Jackie (Natalie Portman) slides up to the front of the hearse to ask the driver if he knows who James Garfield was. What about William McKinley? No? Abraham Lincoln? Yes, of course he knows who Abraham Lincoln was. What did he do? He was the president who freed the slaves. And with a dismissive glance to Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), she resolves that Jack will be given the same funeral as Lincoln. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, the private, former debutante with no real affinity for politics would not be simply upholding but rather carefully constructing her husband’s legacy.
Becoming Jackie: In the most haunting scene in the film, Portman stumbles alone through the private quarters of the White House in a haze, debilitated by the unimaginable trauma of her husband’s assassination. Mica Levi’s score punctuates the horror the newly-widowed woman attempts to drown with liquor and a coffee table full of pills, as she shuffles between rooms, alternating each gown in her wardrobe. Chilean director Pablo Larraín (No, Neruda) is fascinated with the historical truth—interweaving real life footage with painstakingly accurate reenactments of iconic moments, along with fictionalized scenes that ring just as true to life. His inherent detachment from America’s royal family paired with his seeming adoration for the former First Lady allows a perspective we haven’t quite seen before.
Larraín’s focus never waivers from Jackie; Portman is in nearly every scene, often in the dead center of each shot. Her breathy murmurs, though initially jarring, are eerily accurate. Her voice fluctuates throughout the film, from a painfully put on and high pitched tone to a lower, more relaxed version, but intentionally so. This is an in-depth character study, and like the real-life figure she’s portraying, Portman channels the voices of First Lady who lead A Tour of The White House and the intensely private woman who recorded hours of audio about the her life with John F. Kennedy, released posthumously. What could easily descend into impersonation instead breathes life into a fiercely private woman. While we may never lose Natalie Portman in this role—a contention some may have in measuring the success of a biopic—she delivers a praise-worthy performance, not because of her likeness but for creating an accessibility to an otherwise distant figure, all while maintaining the integrity of the subject. The actress can sometimes get in her own way, but this may be to her credit here. The calculated, measured actions and words lend to the character arc.
While Portman was tasked with fully embodying Jackie Kennedy, most of the supporting cast bore little resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Peter Sarsgaard, as Bobby Kennedy, looks little like the 35th president’s younger brother and often picks up and abandons his accent, but his performance is grounding, and at times captivating. The character bridges the gap between the Kennedy monarchy and the ruthless politicians circling the grieving widow who’s reluctant to abdicate her thrown. Her assistant, played by a scene-stealing, almost unrecognizable Greta Gerwig, and her priest, the ever-brilliant John Hurt, give insight into Jackie’s gut-wrenching grief as she tells her children their father isn’t coming home and tries to make peace with her overwhelming anger with God.
Jackie jumps from past to present to a more distant past – flashbacks and aches resembling the scattered, sporadic thoughts that often accompany trauma. The interview with the unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup), undoubtedly Life’s Theodore H. White who interviewed Mrs. Kennedy a week after the assassination, provides the narrative framework to facilitate the flashbacks, while also allowing us access to a different Jackie—one removed from her home, life, and status—one finally in complete control over the narrative. She was bright, powerful, and had the presence of mind to begin to create her husband’s legacy even in the hours after his death. From strategically remaining in her blood-stained clothing to orchestrating an elaborate funeral, she knew the world would be watching, and at every turn, she created the story she wanted to be told.
Larraín never spares his audience. We see the most intimate details, from Jackie removing her blood-soaked clothing to shower, to reburying two of her children, to the moment where her husband is shot and she scrambles to hold the pieces of his head together during that six minute drive to the hospital. Portman is tasked with precision in the scenes that are cemented in the minds of the American public. But in the behind-the-scenes moments, she perfectly teeters somewhere between manic and withdrawn, decisive and aloof, calculating and naive.
Overall: Despite some exceptional performances, the film itself feels uneven and inconsistent in quality, with the final act greatly overshadowing the first two. While Portman’s portrayal of the iconic First Lady may draw in audiences, it’s unlikely the performances alone will be enough to make Jackie worth revisiting.
Featured Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures