Director: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant
As Jackie states as the end of the film, “There won’t be another Camelot.” It’s an accurate assessment as I can’t imagine another family entering American politics that garner as much fascination, intrigue, and polarization than the Kennedys. Natalie Portman takes on the iconic title role in Pablo Larraín’s first English language film. The story centers on the First Lady covering the assassination of her husband and the week that followed. It’s framed around an interview she is giving to a journalist (Crudup) from Life magazine. She is still a bit shell-shocked and distraught over her husband’s gruesome death. As we come to find out, Jackie barely had a voice. In the days following John’s death, it was Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard) and the rest of the administration that tried to take over and force themselves upon the decisions that needed to be made. Despite the constant pressure, Jackie tried to stay in control to keep her children safe and deal with the public perception being cast on her. She was not one to be told how to mourn. The film follows a third path involving her conversations with a priest (Hurt). It’s here where we see a personal side to her versus than the interview with the Life magazine journalist. At one point she tells the priest, “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.”
We have seen countless adaptations drawing back the Kennedy curtain whether it was Oliver Stone’s JFK, Reelz mini-series The Kennedys, Parkland, or Thirteen Days. Every one takes a slightly different angle. Jackie may be the first film in recent years, if not ever, to solely look at what the First Lady went through in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Noah Oppenheim’s script provides that emotional journey to tell her side of the story like she sets out to do with the journalist. I don’t think anyone can fully grasp what she must have felt, but Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín get as close to that as possible.
I have grumbled over the last few years that Hollywood biopics have taken the usual approach by covering too much territory without ever getting all that specific with their subject. It’s as if the person’s Wikipedia page has been made into a movie. You’ll hear and read that Jackie doesn’t do that. Larraín has an interesting way of crafting his version of her story almost as if it’s a suspense film with his central character always on the precipice of completely losing it. Stéphane Fontaine’s camera work is kept as tight in on her as possible as a way of showing how her world was closing in around her. He toggles back and forth with that claustrophobia to wide shots of her walking through the vast White House clearly expressing how little and empty she felt compared to the grandiose life that surrounded her. Composer Mica Levi adds to this as her score evokes a somber and haunting tone to the atmosphere. It’s not the standard patriotic melodies that are typically played in presidential biopics.
It’s no small task to tackle a person as revered and public as Jackie Kennedy. Many actresses have played her before. They adhere to the posture and demeanor fitting the archival footage of her time in the White House. Part of the movie cuts back and forth to her filming the CBS tour of the White House. No one has quite tackled the raw vulnerability like Natalie Portman does with her performance. She gets under her skin so deep you in a way I haven’t experienced with the other Jackies. Portman completely nails the very thin and airy sound to her voice as well as her extremely specific accent that has that Mid-Atlanic/Long Island/Hamptons quality to it. She is tasked with carrying this whole film much of which finds her in a heightened emotional state of mind. Portman excels at that rare balance an actor can find with playing a real person. She completely inhabits Jackie without turning her into a caricature. It’s easy to do with the Kennedys. I never felt that with her, as I became so invested in her as a person, not just as an iconic American figure. I felt so much empathy for her she as she struggled with losing her husband, trying to be a devoted mother all the while feeling like no one was on her side.
One of her oppositions came with Bobby Kennedy, played here by Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven, The Killing). Sarsgaard shies away from doing a Kennedy impression but keeps the power hungry aspect of him in play. There’s an interesting dynamic that’s played out between him and Jackie. I never got the impression they were best friends by any means. It feels apparent in this version that he tried to stay in control of the situation despite what she may have wanted in terms of his funeral arrangements.
Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is a prime example of the approach I like to see with biopics. It feels deeply intimate and personal to shine a light on someone often left as a supporting player next to her husband. Many people will probably go into Jackie looking for this grand sweeping epic. Despite following three different narratives, Larraín takes a minimalist approach. He doesn’t rely on a heavy makeup design or impersonations to get the audience to believe we’re watching a story about the Kennedys, the Johnsons, and the rest of the White House staff. It’s a limited portion of her life, and he keeps the movie very short clocking in at a little over ninety minutes. Like so many people, I have had a long fascination with John, Jackie, and the rest of the extended family. Jackie’s cousin, Edie Beale, was the subject of one of my favorite documentaries, Grey Gardens. Jackie is a heavy and powerful portrait and will hopefully give moviegoers a different perspective as to what it must have been like to be Jackie Kennedy.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Fascinating and tragic with an Oscar-worthy performance from Natalie Portman
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
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