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Natalie Portman as the Mysterious 'Jackie' Kennedy

Dec. 27, 2016
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Natalie Portman
Peter Sarsgaard
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Rated R

Casting is always a challenge in a film about real people whose faces are as familiar as your own family portrait, and in Jackie the casting presents several problems. Peter Sarsgaard lacks charisma as Robert F. Kennedy: a public figure haloed in charisma. Caspar Phillipson is a grumpy killjoy as Lyndon B. Johnson—in reality, a politician as big and colorful as his Texas homeland. Beth Grant is a good Lady Bird Johnson, but what of the all-important title character?

Natalie Portman can be described as intermittent as Jacqueline Kennedy, but then, the same could be said for the real life Jackie Kennedy. In public, the first lady was a stylish mannequin with a whispery voice. In private, who knows? She endured through her death in 1994 as a mysterious shadow in the hot glare of the public spotlight, a celebrity that revealed nothing. Jackie is about how she cemented her already aloof image through her famous, soon-after-her-husband’s-death interview with Life magazine’s Theodore H. White, a Kennedy confidant.

Billy Crudup fails to invest White with any interest—a problem given the amount of screen time he occupies—and one of the screenplay’s faults is its failure to immediately identify White or the importance this on- and mostly off-the-record conversation had at the time of its publication.

Much of Jackie consists of flashbacks, not always in linear order, as the former first lady dials up memories and decides how to edit them for a history of the Kennedy administration as Camelot. After JFK’s death, she seeks out her priest. “Jack and I hardly ever spent the night together,” she confesses (hardly an image intended for the public) and wonders, “Now what am I left with?” The answer is two young children and no certain role beyond her responsibility as the widow in black at the state funeral. She drifts through the White House like a ghost as LBJ’s henchman, Jack Valenti (yes, the guy who later headed the Motion Picture Association of America), tells her it’s time to pack her bags.

Jackie has many well-mounted scenes, especially the forlorn first lady stripping off the blood-stained pink dress she wore on her ill-fated ride into Dallas, and the pageantry of JFK’s full-dress funeral. Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who claims to know little of the Kennedy legend, recreates the famous photograph taken on Air Force One as a hastily recruited judge administers the oath of office to LBJ, and Jackie looks on with abysmal mortification. Portman’s face registers devastation after the assassination but settles into cool, aristocratic hauteur for the interview with Life.

And yet, despite several moving scenes, Jackie falls short of being an entirely moving film. Perhaps the continual back-and-forth between a not terribly engaging interviewer and Jackie’s flashbacks thwarts the story’s momentum. And maybe we see too much of the cool and fully collected Jackie at that interview. In flashbacks she’s more interesting as self-doubt wrestles with determination to see things through her way.


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