****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
Estimated Reading Time : 5 Minutes 07 Seconds
My Rating : 3.5 out of 5 Stars.
My Recommendation : See It in the theatre. If you are a cinephile I think you'll enjoy the film and Portman's performance. If you are looking for a standard bio-pic, you can wait to see it on Netflix or Cable.
Jackie, directed by Pablo Larrain and written by Noah Oppenheim, is the story of first lady Jackie Kennedy during her short time in the White House and shortly thereafter. Natalie Portman stars as Jackie, with supporting turns from Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard. John Hurt and Greta Gerwig.
Prior to seeing Jackie, I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine who also happens to be a client and is one of the great actresses of our time. When I asked my friend what she thought of Jackie she reported that she was bored by it and that Natalie Portman's work was more akin to an impersonation than an acting performance. My friend and I have never disagreed on anything, ever (she won't permit it!!), so when I sat down to watch Jackie with my friend's sweet voice and less-than stellar critique rattling around in my head, I definitely had some pretty low expectations. After watching the film, I am happy to report that I have a much more positive view of Jackie than my very famous friend, sadly though, the consequences of my disagreeing with her will no doubt leave me banished from her elite and glorious company and be forced to rub elbows with the hoi polloi for all eternity.
Where my friend saw impersonation, I saw a layered, textured and intimate performance of great skill and craft. Jackie Kennedy was such an iconic figure that it is very difficult to bring her to life in a complex and multi-dimensional way, but Natalie Portman succeeds in doing just that. The key to Portman's performance is that she is able to find an authentic Jackie beneath the veneer of Mrs. Kennedy's public persona. Jackie, like most public figures, was an actress herself, managing the rare glimpses she would give the people and managing their perceptions of her. Portman masterfully navigates the minefield of playing Jackie Kennedy by giving her a variety of public masks to wear, not just the usual two masks of public and private. Portman's Jackie is wearing one mask meeting crowds at Love Field, and a different mask making her demands to LBJ's Special Assistant Jack Valenti and another mask entirely when searching for Jack's eventual grave site. There are even multiple privacy masks Jackie wears, like when she is "alone" in the White House but with a stone-faced secret service agent right behind her, or when she is being interviewed in her "home" by a reporter, or even when she weeps next to her husbands casket. Even when she is having deeply intimate conversations with her kids she is managing perceptions and expectations of her assistant and the nanny. Jackie is never fully at home, and never without some sort of mask, but Portman creates an inner life to Jackie that is palpable behind her stoic yet soft veneer.
One of the great insights of the film is how it reveals to the audience the great lengths that Jackie went to cultivating the Camelot image of her husbands administration and her family in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Jackie is continually aware that all eyes are on her and she uses that attention to craft and maintain a legacy for her dead husband in the history books, and to make a future for herself and her children.
There are some parts of Jackie that I felt did not work all that well. I felt that Billy Crudup's character, the writer Theodore H. White, was somewhat illogical and unbelievable, as were the discussions between he and Jackie. I felt Peter Saarsgaard's Bobby Kennedy was a weak portrayal as well. Bobby Kennedy is one of the more intriguing people in the JFK drama, but here he is a bit of a dullard and afterthought.
A bright spot in supporting performances is John Hurt as a Catholic priest. The scenes with Hurt are fascinating to watch and pulsate with an existential energy, as they are the heart and philosophical soul of the film and of Jackie herself. Hurt is an often overlooked actor of notable brilliance, and his work in Jackie was a pleasant surprise as I had no idea he was in the film.
Director Pablo Larrain does a deft and masterful job at creating a dramatic style and visual texture in Jackie. Larrain sets a slow, maybe too slow for some, but steady pace that gives room for Portman's Jackie to be more than an historical recreation, he allows her to be an authentic human being in a setting that begs for inauthenticity. Larrain has a cinematic confidence that serves him well in Jackie. Jackie could have been a run of the mill, paint by numbers bio-pic, but Larrain, along with cinematographer Stephane Fontain, create, an at times, exquisite and challenging piece of art. As I said earlier, the film is not perfect and Larrain fails on occasion, but his failures always occur when he is closer to convention rather than challenging it.
One other point of note, is that I am someone who has an intense interest in all things Kennedy in general and in the assassination in particular. You would think my Kennedy fascination would facilitate my loving any film about them, but the opposite is actually true. I tend to really hate films about the Kennedy's because they ring so hollow and phony. I am sure my late Kennedy-hating father would reply that Kennedy films are so hollow and phony because the Kennedy's are hollow and phony…touché sir, but obviously I disagree. What usually maims Kennedy films are the performances, which as my famous, soon-to-be former friend suggested, usually are little more than bad impersonations. Combine that with Kennedy film's general inability to challenge conventional structure and religious adherence to propping up the Camelot myth, and you get some stale cinema. With Jackie, director Larrain is blessed with a genuinely terrific performance from Natalie Portman, so the first issue is overcome. To Larrain's credit, he avoids the other two traps by telling a messy, behind-the-scenes story of the Kennedy myth, revealing how it was created and maintained in the days following Jack's murder, and how ugly a process that is and the toll it took on Jackie. For these reasons, Jackie is the best and most honest Kennedy film to ever come along.
As for Jackie, in spite of, or maybe because of, my low expectations, I enjoyed the film and thought it was very well done. Natalie Portman is very deserving of a Best Actor Oscar nomination for her complex and extremely well crafted performance as America's most iconic First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. While Jackie may not be for everybody, especially those interested in a more straight forward bio-pic, I recommend cinephiles spend the time and energy to go see it in the theatre. Filmmakers, actors and artists of good faith may disagree on the merit and value of Jackie, just like my friend and I, but I found Jackie to be a rare glimpse into how history is made, and the price of managing and maintaining a legacy. If nothing else, Jackie will be a pleasant reminder of when America had a dashing young President and a graceful First Lady, and the world was our oyster, a stark contrast to our current time, where we have a bloated, orange buffoon as President, and the world feels like a giant turd sandwich from which we all have to take a bite. Jackie is a bittersweet reminder that the dream of Camelot is long dead, and the hope of America buried with it, and in its place Mordor is alive and well and thriving on the Potomac.