Jackie, director Pablo Larrain’s glimpse into the life of Jackie Kennedy in the week after the assassination of her husband, wants to be a lot of things at the same time. Noah Oppenheim’s script wants it to be about popular mythmaking, emphasizing, as Vox put it, “the exact moment in time when the grieving widow recognized and harnessed the power of media to craft a narrative that would always be attached to JFK’s legacy.” Larrain’s camera wants it to be about one woman’s psychological descent, filmed almost exclusively in isolation or extreme close-up. Natalie Portman’s Oscar-nominated performance wants it to be an honest portrayal of grief and strength, showing us America’s First Lady at both her weakest and finest hours.
These slightly differing goals need not be in opposition to one another. In fact, when they overlap and unite in purpose Jackie shines as a transcendent portrait of grief on the highest stage in the Free World. Far too often, though, the film appears to be at a cross-purpose with itself, resulting in a frustrating viewing experience. If they all could have just gotten out of their own way Jackie could have really been something amazing. Instead, it is something far more ordinary and familiar – a flawed, but ultimately adequate piece of Oscar bait which is only truly notable for its central performance.
Framed through a free-wheeling interview she grants to an incessantly sniping magazine writer (Billy Crudup) exactly one week after the assassination, we watch through flashback as Jackie (Natalie Portman) wanders through her hours and days in a shell-shocked daze, more resembling Dickens’ Miss Havisham than the First Lady in the way she flatly refuses to change out of her blood-stained pink dress (at least for that first day). Matters of national security and governmental procedure gradually combine to conspire against her continued insistence upon cementing her husband’s legacy by granting him a funeral procession on par with Lincoln’s, yet she eventually finds strength in tragedy and stands up to those men in power who seem to be content with killing her with false kindness.
Whereas Hidden Figures (another prominent awards contender this year) shines a spotlight on the important contributions three unknown black women made to the space race Jackie highlights the mostly unknown contributions of a very well-known white woman to one of the most memorable moments in US history, i.e., President Kennedy’s funeral march in Washington. However, Hidden Figures comes to its story with mostly typical Hollywood movie sensibilities while Jackie is comparatively jumbled and avante-garde, often to its own detriment.
Noah Oppenheim’s script is overly concerned with juxtaposing the version of Jackie we thought we knew with the woman she actually was. It does this by drawing a direct line between the fierce intellect and independence she displays while running roughshod over Crudup’s journalist in the film’s present and the purposefully Stepford Wife-esque part she played while filming the famous 1962 CBS TV Special A Tour of the White House. In ’62, she answers questions like a deer caught in the headlights, glancing off camera at an assistant reminding her to smile. In ’63, though, she talks to Crudup with utter authority, making a point to assure him that nothing she’s told him about the power struggle behind the scenes in the wake of her husband’s death will ever make it to print. She is actively and quite knowingly prioritizing the maintenance of her husband’s legacy (and, yes, she does seem to have been aware of his infidelities) over any true insight into her own experience and lingering trauma.
Larrain edits these conversations as if he has no patience for watching actors walk, such as, hey, wasn’t Crudup standing up a second ago but now he’s sitting down in a different room carrying on the conversation as if nothing has changed? Furthermore, his camera (wielded by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, pictured below) too often attempts to create intimacy through extreme close-up (sometimes recalling Les Miserables’ oft-criticized close-ups). Not surprisingly, Jackie ends with an actor staring straight into the camera as an emotional exclamation point on the end of the movie’s sentence, likely striking some as a fitting end to an engrossing portrait of an emotionally devastated woman and others as a deeply pretentious close to an overly pretentious movie.
The intent is likely to visualize Jackie’s psychological descent, emphasize her extreme isolation in The White House and push in on her whispered conversations in room corners with those she trusts as post-assassination paranoia sets in. However, this doesn’t need to be told through a tired framing device and the type of camerawork and editing which draws more attention to itself than is necessary for the story.
That being said, there are large stretches of Jackie which are truly quite affecting. For example, it’s hard to look away from Portman’s Jackie during her late-night, drunken fashion show in which she tries on outfit after outfit and traipses around the mostly empty White House as if everything’s normal, the Camelot soundtrack blaring away in the background. Similarly, the whole film might be worth the price of admission just to see the late John Hurt deliver a brilliant swan song performance as a wise, old priest offering counsel on morality and mortality to the grieving, possibly suicidal First Lady.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are two movies here: One is built around a boringly standard framing device with snippy back and forth between a writer and famous person and attempted commentary on the process of popular mythmaking; the other is a portrait of a woman in the midst of a potential psychological breakdown. In the latter movie, Jackie Kennedy is forced to deal with her private grief in a brutally public way, struggling to remain standing while the ground beneath her feet keeps disappearing. That’s the more interesting movie, even if some of Larrain’s choices as director undercut rather than enhance. Combine those two parts, though, and you get something which frustrates more than it delights.
THIS AND THAT
AWARDS: Upon premiering at the Venice Film Festival last year, Jackie was thought to have all but guaranteed Portman her second Oscar (first being for Black Swan). After all, there are very few things the Academy loves more than awarding actors for playing famous people, except, of course, for awarding actors for playing actors. As such, Emma Stone’s La La Land has been crashing Portman’s Jackie coronation. Stone’s is arguably the weaker performance, but it comes in a far superior movie. If she wins the Oscar it won’t be a shock.
THE VOICE: Did Portman truly nail Jackie’s distinctive speaking voice? Or is it a distractingly poor imitation? Or is it just so jarring because many of us never even knew what the real Jackie sounded like? For me, it was the latter.
DID YOU KNOW?: This has all been done before. Kind of.
On film and TV, the Kennedy Assassination has been depicted from just about every point of view possible. Jackie is often said to be the first to turn the camera on the First Lady’s experience, but NBC actually did it back in 1991 with its far more traditional, three-part mini-series A Woman Named Jackie: