Movie Review: Jackie

A portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy focuses just on the aftermath of the assassination

Directed by Pablo Larraín
With Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt

There was more to the administration of John F. Kennedy than his assassination in November 1963, but that is almost the only thing that is ever depicted. Jackie, which purports to be a biopic of JFK's wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, does the same thing. It mainly covers the days when she made funeral arrangements for her husband.

The film tries to maintain a high-class aura, but in the end it is a rather ghoulish and voyeuristic affair, going into some moments that are called private for a reason. Jacqueline Kennedy, after the assassination, had no official standing — she was no longer first lady, just a widow who rightly didn't even belong in the White House any longer.

She did take charge, though, and insist on a lavish public funeral. At the time many people on the White House staff considered it a mistake, but it is now remembered as one of the 20th century's great historical moments.

Natalie Portman has won numerous award for her portrayal of the title character, and has an Oscar nomination pending. The film also has nominations for its score and costumes. Portman is the right age, though she projects a much less mature persona than the real character. She gets the breathy voice right, and her costumes are fair copies of those from famous photos. But she in the end doesn't completely fill the shoes. Despite being 35 years old, Portman looks more like a teenager playing dress up as a 1960s airline stewardess than she does like the real first lady.

The framework for the film is Jacqueline Kennedy giving an interview to unnamed journalist played by Billy Crudup. He is based on Theodore H. White, who interviewed the widow for Life magazine.

In the film, though, Jacqueline Kennedy is dictating the official story that she wants published, while the film depicts events that are at times a bit at odds with what is being written. Portman's Jackie, while smoking, tells the journalist that she doesn't smoke. She claims to not remember the events, but then describes them in great detail. The actual article in Life was just two pages, without any of the gruesome detail that the film revels in.

The narrative of the film, due to this interview structure, is a bit disjointed. It flips back and forth between events in Dallas on the day of the assassination; planning the funeral in Washington, DC; a re-creation of a black-and-white televised tour of the White House; later events as Kennedy's grave for a private ceremony; and a depiction of the interview taking place.

Jacqueline Kennedy, at least according to the film, was the only person pushing for a big funeral modeled on the one given to Abraham Lincoln roughly a century earlier. She wanted something that could bring the nation together. Others wanted something smaller because of security concerns and also budget.

At the same time, though, the script by Noah Oppenheim, directed by Pablo Larraín, undercuts this theme of dignity by showing Jacqueline Kennedy stumbling around the empty White House popping pills, swilling liquor and chain smoking. She wears her famous pink outfit covered in bloodstains for a large part of the opening of the film. When Jacqueline Kennedy finally appears in her black outfit and veil, it seems like an apparition in a horror film.

Certainly, there was some drama behind the scenes about how to best handle the almost unprecedented situation, but the way the film handles it seems a bit tasteless at times.

Portman, even if she doesn't look the part, does create a credible character who is forced to stand up for what she thinks is the best way to handle the funeral and JFK's legacy. Her youthful appearance, while not exactly realistic, makes the role even more touching.

Others are rather miscast. Peter Sarsgaard tries to do Bobby Kennedy, but manages to capture none of his personality or mannerisms. For a few brief moments, Caspar Phillipson turns up to impersonate John F. Kennedy, but exudes no charisma. Lyndon Johnson, another larger than life persona, also has a fairly bland stand in.

Scoring points though is John Hurt as a priest, in one of his final roles. He offers some graveside comfort and advice to the widow.

For all of it perhaps good intentions at showing how the US held together in one of its darker times, Jackie has too many unnecessary tabloid moments and a script that is too fragmented. But at least it steers clear of Grassy Knoll conspiracy theories.

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