As Jackie Kennedy flatly states to her interviewer in the eponymous Jackie: “A First Lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. It’s inevitable.”
By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS
When a reference is made to “November 1963,” the event that immediately springs to mind is President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. But what is rarely recalled is the famous magazine interview that Jackie Kennedy gave one week later, on November 29th.
After summoning Life Magazine journalist Theodore H. White to her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts for an exclusive interview, Jackie spoke with him at length. Or rather, spoke to him. In a spate of four hours, she crafted a carefully worded interview in which she purposefully formulated the idea that her husband’s brief time in office should be compared to the mythical ideal of Camelot. Quoting directly from that Broadway musical’s title song, she referred to JFK’s presidency as “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” To emphasize her point, she added the words, “and it will never be that way again.” Twice.
This interview was her idea; the journalist was her choice; and she demanded — and was granted — editorial control. Behind the girl-like, breathy voice and fragile demeanor, the woman who’s presented in this sectional biopic of Jackie is far more complex than a famous widow contending with unimaginable grief. She’s a powerhouse of strength, unapologetic for her prodigious intelligence. And fully cognizant of the fact that if, when the situation arises, she can finesse a politician … just like a fellow politician.
As per writer Noah Oppenheim’s earliest version of the screenplay (which was on 2010’s lauded Black List), Jackie is bookended by scenes from her interview with the character simply known as “The Journalist” (a strong Billy Crudup). The filmmakers decided that rather than delving into Jackie’s early years, or her prior life with the President, the focus would be on how Jackie orchestrated her husband’s legacy. However, the first-time English feature director, the Chilean Pablo Larraín (Neruda, No), opted for additional flashbacks of Jackie playing TV hostess during the shoot of the heralded 1962 television special, “A Tour of the White House.” Unaccustomed to the camera, the First Lady is hesitant and stiff. She’s so nervous it’s humorous – but those lighter scenes, juxtaposed with the widow suffering through an incomprehensible tragedy less than two years later, adds an even greater degree of anguish to the whole.
Portman’s depiction of Jackie Kennedy is a stunning high-wire act of raw vulnerability, anguish and anger, yet undercut with steely resolve and rare glimpses of wry humor. While the make-up, wardrobe and hair departments could fashion the First Lady’s look, Portman had to create a vocal interpretation that was a credible fit. Too much, and it would sink into caricature; too little, and it would be devoid of flavor. Kudos to Portman, whose rendition works beautifully. She melds an East Coast, finishing-school accent with highbrow mid-Atlantic, releasing the mix on a puff of air so delicate that the listener may have to strain to catch some of the quiet phrases before they float away.
To say that Jackie belongs to Natalie Portman is an understatement. From the first frame to the last, the camera acts like an insatiable lover, unable to take its enthralled eye off her for more than a moment. And many of these scenes are terrific. Such as when we catch her face in a three-way mirror on Air Force One, as she shyly rehearses the lines that she’ll be addressing to the adoring Dallas crowds. She is a confectioner’s dream in a perfectly pink Chanel suit. What a shocking difference when we next see her face in that same three-way mirror, now awash in an unholy mess of her husband’s blood mixed with her tears. And that onetime perfectly pink Chanel suit is now stained in red. Though this vision is grisly enough, the filmmakers intensify the horror when later, alone in the White House, Jackie walks on bloody legs toward the camera, the entirety of her outfit fully revealed.
However, this singular focus on Jackie inadvertently blindsides the movie. Given that other characters are afforded such slim screen time, there’s only so much that the heroine can do in a vacuum. Shots upon shots pay a torturous homage to the widow as she wafts through empty halls, sits in empty rooms, and dresses for no one in sumptuous gowns. (Begging the question: How is it that Jackie’s left alone without the company of the Secret Service, or staffers, or even a solitary guard?)
Unfortunately, this lugubrious solitude slows the movie’s pace to a crawl, affecting a rhythm that verges on the somnambulant. In contrast, when the film allows Jackie to engage with others, the energy fairly bounces off the screen. Such as her confrontation with LBJ’s arrogant aide Jack Valenti (a wonderfully pompous Max Casella), with both characters invested in winning. Not only is it a delicious encounter, but we’re afforded a look into the Jackie of political gamesmanship … and it’s a delight to watch her deftly disassemble the ego of LBJ’s self-important yes man.
Intriguing characters such as the mercurial Bobby Kennedy (a compelling Peter Sarsgaard), loyal staffer Nancy (a waste of the highly talented Greta Gerwig), and LBJ (John Carroll Lynch) come close to being relegated as background players. Of course it’s Jackie’s story, but as in her scene with Jack Valenti, more interplay might have informed her character even further.
Unlike previous projects that have focused on Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, this unique film zeroes in on a particular timeframe, in which the indelible legacies of both Jack and Jackie Kennedy first came to pass.
For the history, and for Natalie Portman’s performance, Jackie is a must-see.
Rating on a scale of 5 First Ladies: 4
Release date: December 2, 2016
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant with Billy Crudup and John Hurt
Running Time: 99 minutes
Here’s the trailer for Jackie: