A film review by Craig J. Koban February 13, 2017


2016, R, 99 mins.


Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy  /  Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy  /  Greta Gerwig as Pamela Turnure  /  Billy Crudup as The Journalist  /  John Hurt as The Priest  /  Max Casella as Jack Valenti  /  Sunnie Pelant as Caroline Kennedy  /  Beth Grant as Ladybird Johnson

Directed by Pablo Larraín  /  Writren by Noah Oppenheim

The best aspect of JACKIE is that it's not an obligatory biography of one of the most famous First Ladies in American history in Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of the 35th U.S. President John F. Kennedy.  

More compellingly, the film is largely about the short period involving her post JFK assassination life from November 22, 1963 and how she desperately tried to cope with not only the loss of her husband, but also with planning a funeral for one of the most famous men in the world while trying to guard her family away from the pubic spotlight.  In this respect, JACKIE feels more insular and intimate with its focus, especially in terms of its handling of a woman whose marriage to a husband achieved mythic stature for its time. 

The problems, though, with JACKIE is that Jackie Kennedy remains a frustratingly enigmatic and ill defined persona throughout its running time.  Not only do we learn next to nothing new about her that we didn't already know, but the script rarely finds any emotional resonance with her: For all of this film's attempts at de-mythologizing her and her equally famous husband, she paradoxically comes off as even more ethereally larger than life because of the manner she's portrayed here.  This is not a knock at Natalie Portman's stellar and deeply committed performance (she's not only an absolute physical dead ringer for Kennedy, but she also captures the essence of her being through precise body language and note perfect vocal intonations), but Jackie in JACKIE remains a vague and ill defined cipher.  I rarely, if ever, felt deeply connected to this woman throughout the course of the narrative, other than the fact that, yes, she's was a deeply sympathetic woman considering the horrifying trauma she went through. 



The other problem that obtrusively dogs this film is the way its narrative is fractured into multiple pieces from multiple timelines that are all pierced together in a mostly haphazard manner that lacks symmetry.  It also rather unnecessarily uses a framing device of an interview being conducted with Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband's assassination that never really seems to coalesce well within the larger framework of the story.  The interview in question involves Life Magazine journalist Theodore White (a decent Billy Crudup) coming to Kennedy's home approximately one week after JFK's murder.  He hopes to break down Kennedy's deeply guarded and private facade that she has with the general public in hopes giving the public a good story.  Kennedy, however, seems less inclined - initially at least - to acquiesce, but as her defenses wane she begins to relay to the reporter the events leading up to her husband's death, the nightmarish ordeal she went through immediately afterwards, and the emotionally taxing ordeal of what proper course of action she should take for planning his funeral and burial.  The film hops back and forth between this interview and the past, with flashbacks within flashbacks occurring, contributing to the film's sense of jarring discordance.  

On a large positive, JACKIE looks positively sensational thanks in large part of Chilean director Pablo Larrain (making his English language debut), who paints the screen with an extraordinary eye for period decor and detail.  If anything, JACKIE is a stunning evocation of the White House of yesteryear and one that makes you gain an immediate sensation of being transported to a different era.  One of the highlights of the film is Larrain's painstaking recreation of Kennedy's filmed tour of the White House in 1962, which captures the ebbs and flows of the event with authentic strokes.  The film also recreates the fateful day of the assassination as well, but this time mostly from a ground zero perspective from within the motorcade and from Kennedy's point of view of watching her husband's head being blown out all over her.  Far too many films about the JFK assassination have focused on labyrinthine conspiracies involving his demise, but so very few have actually honed in on the fact that a horrified woman became a widow during it.  JACKIE wisely reminds us all that there's certainly another viewfinder by which to look at JFK's assassination.   

I guess that's the more memorable parts of the film: the ones that deal with a traumatized widow that's forced to deal with violently losing the love of her life that also happened to be the most powerful political force in the world.  JACKIE works sensationally well when it relays to the audience how Kennedy bolstered up all of her will power and fortitude to make it from one day to the next after JFK's death...and all while being an outwardly strong and assured presence in her young children's lives that were far too young to completely process the instant loss of their father.  JACKIE may be about an enormously well known and cherished political figure, but it understands that Kennedy was also a grieving wife and mother.  We've all been routinely exposed to countless silver screen biographies about famous men in places of high power, which is what makes JACKIE, in part at least, feel all the more refreshing in terms of its dealing exclusively with a prominent woman and trying to find out what made her ultimately tick.   

Portman's performance, at first, feels stiff and mannered to me in the essence that she seemed to be going for outright imitation instead of forging ahead with a flesh and blood portrayal of Kennedy.  Yet, as JACKIE progresses Portman gets more thoroughly immersed within the psychological depths of this woman in panic stricken crisis mode and creates a vivid portrayal of a persona experiencing pain, confusion, fear, and paralyzing uncertainty about the future.  It's an example of an actress elevating a character well above the screenplay's negligence, because she makes Kennedy feel more robustly layered and relatably flawed than what's really on the page.  I only wished that the cast around her shined as much, especially the wholeheartedly miscast Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy, who neither looks like the Kennedy sibling at all, nor does he even seem to be remotely capturing his speech patterns.  Sarsgaard is a brilliant actor, to be sure, but he seems ill at ease throughout JACKIE.  Robert Kennedy felt like a warm and inviting presence, but Sarsgaard makes him creepily domineering here.   

There's so much endlessly compelling material to be had in JACKIE, and the snippets of time that it deals with in capturing Kennedy processing the immense severity of her husband's passing are illuminating, but the film's attempts at commentary about who she was, what she stood for, and ultimately what made her function - both short and long term - after losing JFK are shallow at best.  The moments involving her staving off complete emotional implosion are the film's strongest, but overall JACKIE's mostly abstract handling of its subject matter is distancing and coldly clinical.  I think that writers, reporters, and historians have somewhat chased the large iconic shadow that this woman and her husband have cast on the political fabric of America over the lasts several decades.  The makers of JACKIE seem to be enthusiastically embracing those myth-making elements a bit too much for their own good, because by the time the end credits rolled by I didn't get a very humanistic portrait of Kennedy at all that was conspicuously defined.  The film is opulently glossy to look at and contains a superlative lead performance, but underneath that the whole enterprise lacks dramatic urgency and staying power...and is simply not very revelatory. 



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