“Jackie, if nothing else, gets us to look deeper at an American icon”
Natalie Portman’s researched and embodiment of Jackie Kennedy is a terrific performance in search of a worthy film to accompany it, and that film isn’t Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, regardless of how impressive it is in a minor sense. Written by Noah Oppenheim, whose credentials include adaptations of young adult novels such as The Maze Runner and The Divergent Series: Allegiant, the film is takes place over a variety of different time-periods, and while the periods themselves effortlessly captivate thanks to the rich history and detail Larraín and company bring, this is a narratively muddled film that shows its wear and tear far too early on.
We all talk about John F. Kennedy’s brief but memorable legacy as President of the United States and we all talk about his assassination that scarred the nation and saw an outcry for political and social stability in a time of war and civil rights. Who we always seem to forget or shortchange is Jackie Kennedy, billing her as a fashion icon who gave a nationally televised tour of the White House shortly after her husband took the oath of office. History textbooks and even many documentaries on that fateful November day in 1963 overlook how Jackie was personally affected by watching her husband get shot and killed right by her side, splattered by his blood with his blood-soaked head and neck lying in her lap seconds after.
Jackie, if nothing else, gets us to look deeper at an American icon whose history is more worthy than simply being a model First Lady for the American people.
As stated, Portman not only plays Jackie, but at times, embodies her elegance and grace, emulating her unique vocal-style to a tee. It’s a combination of raspy, quivering, yet assured that brings out the best in her, and the dichotomy of Jackie’s public and private image is one Portman delightfully sinks her teeth into from the first frame, as her extensive preparation and acting prowess is shown off here explicitly. The film is set shortly after John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 23, 1963, where a distraught Jackie Kennedy, living in seclusion in Massachusetts, is visited by Life magazine writer Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), who is looking to write a post-assassination piece on her. Jackie offers glimpses into her life, but forces many things she says to be put off the record, forcing White to write a story based on the stray information she permits him to use. “You want me to tell you what sound the bullet made when it hit him,” Jackie coldly tells him.
Flashbacks detail almost everything here, from Jackie’s nationally publicized tour of the White House, to moments she spent with her husband, to her relationship with Kennedy’s successor, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch). We also see Jackie’s relationship with her large family, which probably could’ve been a Clinton-sized dynasty in the modern day had it not been for the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. by way of an aircraft accident and the eventual shooting death of Jack’s older brother Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Her relationship with the world descends from a kind and spirited one to a also becomes a more contentious plea for salvation or some semblance of relief.
Larraín’s film is ostensibly a character study on the First Lady, but Oppenheim’s structure is what greatly hinders any ability for the film to be a more compelling story. The film’s frequent flashbacks disrupt any kind of continuity the film has, making emotional resonance with Jackie even more difficult than outside of what you’d feel by reading the events in your history textbook or on Wikipedia. Larraín also seems to assume that if we show closeups of Jackie’s tear-eyed gaze that has her eyes wandering all over the place that we will absorb her feelings of guilt and sorrow. All I personally saw was how Portman was stuck in a film that couldn’t figure out a way to make the quality of the film match her.
The more I think about it, the more I can’t shake the feelings and characters in Manchester by the Sea, another film about loss and grief. In that film, we almost never leave the side of a character who is hardly emotionally stable to stand up straight in the morning much less go about operating like a normal person. Though we hop around the lead character’s life quite a bit in that film, and do weave in and out of flashbacks, they are far less frequent and better implemented into a cohesive whole.
Jackie‘s awkward frame-story and obvious focus on Jackie’s White House tour and facial expressions make the viewer feel like Larraín and Oppenheim knew they had a slight film on their hands, but couldn’t pull off something like the anthology narrative as seen in Parkland. What we get is a biopic at a crossroads, one too bold to be conventional yet too stunted to be a defining example of coloring outside admittedly very limiting lines.