Natalie Portman perfectly captures the iron will beneath the glamorous exterior of Jacqueline Kennedy in this examination of what happened in the days after JFK’s assassination
Starring: Natalie Portman
Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
The assassination of John Kennedy remains a defining moment of our times — the day the music died. The new film Jackie is an odd, out-of-the-blue story about how Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline, coped with his murder and helped to create his legacy in the few days after the shooting in Dallas. It feels both random but suddenly relevant today, when the American presidency has become something other than Camelot.
Jackie rests almost entirely on Natalie Portman’s Oscar-nominated turn as the beautiful, smart, vulnerable, and half-hidden woman who was regarded at the time as a lovely accessory to the handsome president, a sort of prize given to the rich and famous, all dressed in Chanel. Even when her pink suit was stained red with his blood in the back seat of the limousine on Nov. 22, 1963 and she refused to clean it off —“I want them to see what they’ve done,” she famously said — she was put into another role, the grieving widow, which was just another part of the JFK legend.
The performance is an astounding replication of the real person, from her flighty, almost quivering New England accent — Marilyn Monroe filtered through Bryn Mawr — to her stiff-armed gait through the rooms of the White House in a precise re-creation of Jackie’s famous televised tour of the renovations she was planning. (The Kennedy respect for the traditions of the mansion becomes another striking contrast to the current incumbent.)
Portman brings out the steel behind that persona, even if we never really get beneath her skin. Being the president’s wife was a role that she, like many others, had to play: “A first lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases,” she says. The hopeless widow was a role she refused, and the movie shows how she organized his funeral, and the long parade to the cemetery, in the face of much opposition from the men in power. These include her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), whose tentative relation with his brother’s widow has a complicated undercurrent of compassion, fear and paternalism.
Who Jackie really is under all that is never made clear. “When men see me now, what do they think?,” she asks the unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) to whom she talks in the framing story of the film. “I used to make them smile.” Is she that shallow, or that realistic?
The interview (based on a real interview given by Jackie to Theodore White Jr. shortly after Kennedy’s assassination) is interrupted with flashbacks to that terrible day in Dallas and some of the famous events — the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson as president, the televised shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald — that followed. Jackie is shown as a woman who has gone from the role as wife-of to that of preserver of the flame She is controlling the narrative: “Don’t think for a second that I’m going to let you publish that,” she says after giving a minute-by-minute account of what it was like holding Kennedy’s shattered skull in her lap on the way to the hospital. Later, stubbing out one of an endless number of cigarettes, she tells the journalist, “I don’t smoke.”
Directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (Neruda), and cast against the dolorous sound of cellos — perhaps a tribute to Pablo Casals, who played for the Kennedys at the White House — Jackie is a sad and fascinating piece of history. Its effect is scattered, however; we never know just why this story, and why now, although John Hurt, as a common-sense priest who consoles Jackie, does provide a glimmer of spiritual comfort.
At the end, Jackie tries to bring her grief down from the heights of the American royalty in her most inspired bit of myth-making. Camelot, the Broadway musical, was to become the prevailing metaphor for the Kennedy years, the story of a mythical land of goodness that could not last. “There will never be another Camelot,” Jackie tells the journalist. “Not another Camelot.” And we hear the rich tones of Richard Burton as he half-narrates, half-sings the reprise of the title song: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” It’s hard to remember now.
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