Jackie (2016) Fox Searchlight/Drama RT: 99 minutes Rated R (brief strong violence, some language) Director: Pablo Larrain Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim Music: Mica Levi Cinematography: Stephane Fontaine Release date: December 2, 2016 (US. limited)/December 16, 2016 (US, expansion) Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Sunnie Pelant, Brody and Aiden Weinberg.
Jackie is a textbook example of a good film made better by a strong lead performance. In this case, it’s Natalie Portman (Black Swan) as First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. I usually make it a point NOT to discuss my Oscar predictions prior to the ceremony. Blame it on pride. In 1999, I was so sure that Saving Private Ryan would be the big winner that year, I bet and lost money on it. Not a lot, but still. Who would have guessed a light-hearted historical rom-com (Shakespeare in Love) would beat Spielberg’s brilliant (and bloody) WWII drama? The opening sequence alone- i.e. the invasion of Normandy- should have secured the golden statuette. Since then, I tend to keep my predictions to myself. But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ll make an exception in this case and say that Portman has a lock on the Best Actress award. Her performance in Jackie is flawless. If only the same could be said of the film.
The framing device, in which Jackie sits down with a Life magazine reporter (Crudup, Almost Famous) for an interview one week after her husband’s assassination, is weak. I didn’t get Crudup’s character, a composite based mainly on political journalist Theodore H. White. His scenes with Portman are rather awkward. I suppose it could be argued that any reporter would feel weird talking to a recently widowed First Lady but what about journalistic professionalism? Even so, he doesn’t appear particularly sympathetic to Jackie. He’s often condescending, either interrupting her or putting words in her mouth. It could be argued here that this is due to the prevailing gender politics of the time, that men inherently know better than women. I get why the makers used this particular framing device; it just doesn’t do a lot for the narrative.
Jackie mainly focuses on that fateful day in November 1963 when a nation’s innocence was shattered by an assassin’s bullet. We all know what happened that day in Dallas as the Presidential motorcade made its way along Dealey Plaza. The film traces the events of that horrible day, from the Kennedy’s arrival at Love Field to the ride to the hospital to Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Carroll, Fargo) being sworn in on Air Force One. Jackie also touches on key points like the planning of JFK’s funeral procession and Jackie trying to tell to tell her children that their father is dead while struggling to accept it herself. The narrative also includes recreated scenes of the 1962 televised tour of the White House where a smiling First Lady talks about her efforts to restore and preserve its historical character. All of this is quite fascinating. The constant shifts back to the interview at the family’s home in Hyannis Port interrupt the dramatic momentum.
Like I already said, Portman’s Oscar-worthy performance is at the center of Jackie. She plays the grieving First Lady with grace, dignity, poise and strength in the face of a life-changing personal tragedy. That she’s forced to deal with her grief in the public eye makes it all that much harder to keep it together. On top of everything else, she has to deal with moving out of the White House now that she’s no longer First Lady. Plus, she’s surrounded by a bunch of men who think they know better because they’re men telling what to do and what not to do. What does a young grieving widow know about the logistics of a public funeral procession, one that will be attended by several world leaders? The security alone is a big hassle. One of the men is brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy, played not-so-convincingly by Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven), the movie’s other weak link. He neither looks nor sounds like Bobby Kennedy. The rest of the cast, which includes Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) as Jackie’s loyal aide Nancy Tuckerman and Danish actor Caspar Phillipson as JFK, does a great job.
Director Pablo Larrain (the upcoming Neruda), working from a screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner), does an outstanding job recreating several iconic images of the events from a very tragic chapter in American history although I was a little disappointed we don’t get to see little John-John saluting his father’s casket. Jackie plays out like a fever dream as it follows its human subject through a difficult period. It’s shot mainly in close-up; the camera is never far from Portman’s face. The cinematography by Stephane Fontaine is one of the film’s many strong points.
While flawed, Jackie is a most compelling film. There have been many movies and documentaries about the JFK assassination but none have ever told it from the point-of-view of the First Lady. It’s a bold creative decision that pays off because of Portman. Watch as she tries to maintain her composure and sanity as she attempts to secure her husband’s legacy as one of the greatest Presidents of all time. His brief tenure as Commander-in-Chief has often been likened to Camelot, an analogy Larrain acknowledges by including Richard Burton’s rendition of the title song from the hit Broadway musical (a personal favorite of JFK’s). Like the song says, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Thanks to Jackie and Jackie, we’ll never forget.