Natalie Portman won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 drama Black Swan. She may very well win another this year for her riveting portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie. Portman nails the unique accent and mannerisms of one of the most difficult Americans to interpret. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, many of us have a recollection of the speech patterns and idiosyncrasies of the former first lady. Portman hits all the right notes.
Not a biography of Jackie Kennedy
And the film itself is intriguing too. Jackie is no more a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis than Oliver Stone’s JFK was a biography of John Kennedy. Jackie strictly focuses on the first lady and her inner circle in the days immediately following the shooting death of her husband. We see how Jackie coped with the horror of not only losing a husband and father, but also how she led the nation through one of its most troubling times. Her strength under great duress guided the nation through the burial of a popular president and the inaugural of the heretofore not well-known vice-president. Larrain captures the uncertainty of the times with acumen and empathy. Each detail is so precise and the Noah Oppenheim screenplay so pragmatic that we inadvertently transport ourselves back to the tragic days of late 1963.
While I generally loved Jackie, my primary quibble is in the structure of the story. Here again, several story threads are interspersed simultaneously rather than using a more logical chronological account. The structure of the film is an interview between Mrs. Kennedy and a Life magazine journalist (Billy Crudup) in the wake of the fateful upheaval in her life and that of the nation. This format takes us through the Kennedys’ momentous day in Dallas and the events surrounding the funeral procession and aftermath. Interspersed are a few scenes of the Kennedys’ life in Washington, Jackie’s much heralded television program in which she showed Americans recent improvements to the White House, and a crucial post-assassination discussion with her priest. As usual, I would have preferred a more lineal structure, but Larrain makes the most of his chosen format.
Scenes with priest are most intriguing
Especially poignant are the scenes between the former first lady and her priest (an almost unrecognizable John Hurt), in which she contemplates her own mortality, the future of her children, and the omnipresence of a God who would orphan two young impressionable kids. These sequences are the meat of Jackie – the avenue through which Larrain and Oppenheim allow us to feel her pain, if you will. She shares sentiments with the priest that she would likely withhold from a journalist. Therefore, the interview framework only succeeds up to a point. It’s the priest segment that transports Jackie from a decent historical account to a near-great film.
Save for Hurt, the supporting cast is not the equal of Portman. Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy not only doesn’t look right, but the body language is all wrong. Much as with Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon it’s more a representation of Bobby Kennedy rather than an exact impersonation – which is what we get from Portman. Likewise, John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant don’t do justice to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.
Greta Gerwig makes strong showing
A supporting performance I did like was that of Nancy Tuckerman, the social secretary of the Kennedy White House – and personal aide, friend, and confidant of Mrs. Kennedy’s in the days following the assassination. Played by the underrated Greta Gerwig, Jackie confides in her certain details she would be inclined to withhold from the media. Gerwig radiates the confidence Tuckerman earned from Mrs. Kennedy during her years of service.
On the whole, Jackie is a very good, albeit dark, film. I hesitate to attach the label “great,” as it doesn’t quite rise to that level. But it begs to be seen, if for no other reason than Natalie Portman’s scintillating channeling of one of the most revered figures of the twentieth century.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://www.currentnightandday.com/
and he serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/