Billy Crudup, Biography, Drama, Funeral, Greta Gerwig, Historical drama, Interview, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Natalie Portman, Pablo Larraín, Peter Sarsgaard, President John F. Kennedy, Review, The White House, True story
D: Pablo Larraín / 100m
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella
A week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Phillipson) in November 1963, his widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Portman) – otherwise known as Jackie – summoned the journalist Theodore H. White (Crudup) to her home at Hyannis Port. White had won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction with his book The Making of the President, 1960, an account of the election that saw Kennedy win the Presidency. Jackie’s idea was for White to write an article that would be published in Life magazine, and which would show a correlation between her late husband’s administration and King Arthur’s court at Camelot. White agreed, and guided by Jackie’s suggestions, he wrote a thousand word essay that stressed the Camelot comparison.
This is the basis for Jackie, the latest movie to pick over the bones of Kennedy’s assassination and its wake. By using White’s “interview” with Jackie, the movie shows how Jackie dealt with the demands of suddenly becoming a former First Lady, balancing her public persona with her private feelings, arranging her husband’s funeral, and most important of all, protecting and promoting his legacy. It’s this that forms most of the narrative, as Jackie seeks to cement Kennedy’s place in history. Even riding in a hearse with brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard) (and this shortly after Kennedy’s body has been released from Parkland Hospital), Jackie is keen to make the point that nobody remembers James A. Garfield or William McKinley, both assassinated while in office, but they do remember Abraham Lincoln – and all because of his legacy as a President.
But her husband’s legacy isn’t the only thing she appears focused on. There’s also the matter of what she regards as “the truth”. She wants the American public to see the full horror of what she experienced on 22 November 1963; to this end she doesn’t change out of that famous pink Chanel suit she wore on the day when she’s given the opportunity, and even though it’s spattered with her husband’s blood. She keeps it on for the rest of the day – at Parkland Hospital, during Lyndon B. Johnson’s impromptu inauguration, at the airport in Washington (where she refuses to leave by the back of the plane so as to avoid the reporters), and finally in the White House, where she wanders the various rooms as if only now beginning to come to terms with the enormity of what happened earlier that day in Dallas, Texas.
In the days that follow, we see Jackie behave erratically but with some deep-rooted purpose that only she understands, tackling the issue of whether or not to walk behind the coffin, and what she’ll do once she leaves the White House. She confides in one of her retinue, Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig), one of the few people who can raise her spirits and bring a smile to Jackie’s face, and a priest, Father Richard McSorley (Hurt), who offers her spiritual comfort. But she remains almost defiantly isolated, determined to continue in her own way, and against the wishes of the new administration when it matters.
In focusing on Jackie in the hours and days following Kennedy’s assassination, the movie gives the viewer the opportunity to eavesdrop on the very private grief of a very public person, someone who put on a brave face for the cameras, but who also kept herself at a distance, despite wanting people to see “the truth”. It’s this dichotomy that makes Jackie the person endlessly fascinating to observe, and Jackie the movie somewhat disappointing in terms of the narrative. We see Jackie at various points, both in time and in place, throughout the movie. There are scenes in Dallas, in Washington, inside the White House, at Hyannis Port, but many of them feel like snippets of memory, connected discretely to each other by the random nature of Jackie’s thoughts and emotions. When she and White (known only as the Journalist, for some reason, in the credits) sit down to discuss the article, their conversation often goes off at a tangent, and Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay encourages this, as if it will give us a better understanding of Jackie in those four days between JFK’s death and his funeral. But it’s obvious: she’s trying to weather those four days as best she can until she can grieve properly, away from prying eyes.
With the script trying to add layers where they’re not needed, it’s left to Natalie Portman to save the movie from its all-too-clever design, and deliver a nigh-on faultless performance, burrowing under Jackie’s skin and finding the nerve centre of someone who was never entirely comfortable being in the public spotlight, but who instinctively knew the public’s perception of JFK as a great President – hence the parallel with Camelot – needed to be kindled as quickly as possible after his death, and that she was the only one who could do it. Portman portrays this single-mindedness with a quiet intensity, perfectly capturing Jackie’s “feisty” nature in private, and her more vulnerable, debutante persona in front of the cameras and/or reporters’ notebooks. There are moments in the movie when you could be forgiven for thinking that Jackie is “absent” from the room, or a conversation. But Portman’s portrayal is more subtle than that, and she gauges these “absences” with an acute awareness that a character’s stillness or silence often means more than is seen on the surface.
If there’s one problem with Portman’s magnificent performance, it’s that it overshadows everything else the movie attempts or gets right. Jackie, ultimately, stands or falls thanks to Portman’s efforts, because without her command of the character (and Jackie’s odd accent), the movie lacks little else to keep the audience’s attention from wandering. Making his first English language movie, Chilean director Larraín displays an aptitude for scenes of sombre regret, and along with Portman fleshes out Jackie’s character to impressive effect, but there still remains the feeling that Jackie (the person) has been assembled from random aspects of her personality that seem a good fit for the narrative rather than a true representation of what she was really like at the time. At best, this is an interpretation of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy; at worst it’s an impression.
On the technical side, Jackie flits between looking stunning, and looking bland depending on the requirements of the script, and the budget. The interiors of the White House, faithfully recreated in a studio outside Paris, France, are dazzling examples of what can be achieved when you have the talents of production designer Jean Rabasse, art director Halina Gebarowicz, and set decorator Véronique Melery on board. And yet, if you contrast these wonderful sets with the motorcade sequences, it’s like the difference between day and night, with the scenes in Dallas looking like they’ve been shot on a closed stretch of road and with only two cars available for filming. And despite the best efforts of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, the movie never overcomes these disparities. In contrast, Mica Levi’s tonal, somewhat sepulchral score is a good match for the material, and acts as an emotional undercurrent to Jackie’s grief and displacement.
Rating: 8/10 – fans of low budget independent dramas will enjoy Jackie for its slow, measured pace, refusal to explain everything that’s going on (with Jackie herself), and Portman’s exquisitely detailed performance; an attempt at an intimate portrayal of a very private person, the movie glides majestically along for most of its running time, and gives the impression of being more meanngful than it actually is, but it still has a lot to offer both the casual and the more interested viewer.