Synopsis – Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.
My Take – Life of the Kennedys has been quite tragic. While most of the world (including myself) is still obsessing over the magic bullet theory which took a part in the assassination of the 35th President of the United States, Chilean director Pablo Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim are more concerned about giving a haunting psychological portrait of a woman caught in a terrifying piece of history. Jacqueline Bouvier, Jackie Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Jackie O. Jackie, there are many ways to refer to this singularly iconic woman – and many ways to remember her, that breathy voice, that educated and sophisticated demeanor, Her sense of style especially that pink suit, later tragically stained with the blood of a slain president, husband and father, and, of course, her extraordinary poise and grace in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination. This film is a singular burst of estrogen on screen as we follow Portman’s titular character navigates through the days after her husband’s death in that now infamous car ride in Dallas. This isn’t a film in which a woman discovers herself through a man. This is a film about a strong woman put in a near impossible situation and how she coped with that impossible situation to become exactly what she was known to most of the world as: the strongest woman alive. This film shows a Jackie Kennedy that we did not know. While there is nothing revealed of which we weren’t already aware, albeit in fits and starts over the years, assembling it all as film does it in certainly a fresh approach, one must decide if we are watching a dissection or a hit job, for in many ways, it is not flattering. Yes, the film does leave a mark, yet it might not be what the film makers expected. It feels like a passionate project, with pretty impressive depictions of the era, with cinematography that gives you the feel of the era, or at times, a documentary, realistic look.
The story follows Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), the former first lady and wife to President John F. Kennedy as “Life” Magazine writer Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) arrives at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts for his appointment to interview Jackie Kennedy, one week after her husband’s assassination, is already very concerned that her husband may be forgotten – or misunderstood by history. White, who is deferential, but firm and professional, finds a woman who is clearly still grieving her horrible loss, but who is also very much in control of herself – and very much in control regarding her husband’s legacy – even to the point of editing White’s notes during the interview. While returning periodically to the scenes of the interview, most of Jackie’s story is told in flashback scenes of her as First Lady – especially on that fateful day in November of 1963 – and the four days that followed. We get a sense of who she was as First Lady from a look at the filming (no, not taping – not in 1962) of Jackie Kennedy’s famous televised tour of the White House, during which she showed and discussed her historic and artistic changes to “The People’s House”, as she calls it, while she receives help and support from her close aide, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). But most of the film revolves around the assassination, its immediate aftermath and the funeral preparations. In spite of being traumatized by the shooting, Jackie “keeps it together” as well as anyone in those circumstances could, cradling her husband’s fatally-wounded head in her lap on the way to the hospital and desperately hoping that he might survive, dutifully standing with the new First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant), beside Vice President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), as he takes the oath of office and becomes President of the United States, and then, after sitting motionless beside her husband’s casket during the flight back to Washington, D.C., refusing to change her blood-stained suit before exiting the plane and being photographed by the press, “so they can see what they did to Jack”. While caring for her children and making plans for their future, Jackie becomes intimately involved with the planning of her husband’s funeral. President Johnson and his new administration, including Special Assistant Jack Valenti (Max Casella), respectfully defer to Jackie’s wishes regarding every detail, even when she changes her mind. She uses the funeral of Abraham Lincoln as a template for her plans, including insisting on an open procession through the streets of Washington, in spite of the well-founded security concerns that are raised. Alternately sharing their grief and having stress-fueled clashes, Jackie and her brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) work together on these plans, including choosing JFK’s grave site in Arlington National Cemetery. As much as we learn about Jackie from watching her during those four days in November, we gain even more insight into her private thoughts during scenes of a conversation with an elderly priest (John Hurt) at the cemetery. Many original images, videos, and clips are blended/spliced into the re-enactments to add a touch of sentimentality and prove how close to reality the film holds. Throughout the history of cinema, there have been countless biopics of famous figures that deify their subjects and disregard faults in fear of tainting the idol they have so perfectly sculpted. To grasp the concept here from director Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner), it’s imperative to understand that, at the time; Jackie was the personification of a nation’s grief and the ultimate example of dignity and grace.
Amusingly, though, two of the most emotionally-charged moments play out “on paper” like something ripped straight from a TV Channel: Yes, there’s really a scene where Jackie and Bobby literally sit and exchange a somber litany of progressive wish-dreams they won’t get to fulfill themselves and a penultimate sequence where Jackie wanders an empty, soon-to-be-vacated White House knocking back wine, beaming at the decor and giving her best outfits a last show-off for nobody in particular. Few biopics have had more unreliable of a narrator than Mrs. Kennedy here and the film emphasizes how traumatically shocking the assassination proved for her. She was not just in shock because her husband died, but how; John F. Kennedy’s skull was blown off, with his flesh, blood, and bone fell into her lap. Additionally, she starts fighting to preserve her and her husband’s reputation and often tells the reporter not to print certain revealing statements. Her shock and pride dual with one another, frequently distorting any true sense of reality. It makes for some fascinating storytelling. Directed Pablo Larrain admitted he was initially hesitant in directing this film due to lacking any previous personal attachment of the film’s history. Nonetheless, Larrain’s unfamiliarity with Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis lays the foundation for the towering success of this ambitious biopic. Any American director would have imposed some preconceived notion about the 35th First Lady of the United States; it’s likely Jackie Kennedy remains too familiar and influential among her countrymen for an impartial and fresh approach in casting her as a dramatic character with conflicting public and private personas. Larrain’s previous unfamiliarity allows him to approach his subject matter differently than his audiences’ memory of the Jackie Kennedy so well-known from television and newspapers, instead building a haunting canvas and allows the brilliant Natalie Portman to paint a tragic new portrait of an American president’s widow. However, here the film though fascinating and compelling, includes elements which does damage to its overall quality. The script and direction shed a lot of light on what happened (and might have happened) during the private moments of this very public national nightmare, while painting a very personal portrait of Jackie Kennedy, but the editing harms the film’s potential effectiveness. The chronology of events, while not very difficult to follow, simply jumps around too much, and the choices of which bits of archival footage to use and where to use them, distracts from and even contradicts the film’s own cinematography. Meanwhile, the score is overwhelming and unnecessarily melodramatic. Still, we see the film, understand, and appreciate it; however, I’m not sure that I really enjoyed the experience. I wasn’t touched, as much as I was jolted by the recreation of that day, and there’s very little subtlety in the film. After a while, we feel like we are being pounded, and we end up a bit drained. But of course Natalie Portman‘s performance is the reason you should watch this film. Natalie Portman nails Jackie Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, while infusing her with a complex combination of vulnerability, tenacity and grace under pressure. It’s a performance that transcends imitation, though her take on Jackie’s public face is uncanny — the tremulous voice, the practiced walk, and the smile that flashes with deliberate brilliance before dropping away. Portman is relentless and shows a layered conveyance of emotion throughout the film. She does not allow the iconic figure to become a one-dimensional reflection of the public’s memory, but allows viewers to witness the conflicted feelings of nostalgia, grief, isolation, and tenacity that Kennedy experienced. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as the thoroughly-broken Bobby Kennedy, and his consideration should benefit from his usually contrasting negative roles. Others in supporting roles include a nearly unrecognizable Greta Gerwig), John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant, Max Casella, stunning lookalike Caspar Phillipson, and a remarkable John Hurt as the Priest helping Jackie through her spiritual crisis who along with Billy Cudrup put in sincere performances. On the whole, ‘Jackie’ is a familiar biopic featuring a compelling and intricate performance from a fully committed Natalie Portman.
Directed – Pablo Larraín
Rated – R
Run Time – 100 minutes