JACKIE—–we say the name as if we actually, personally knew her, the casual and familiar diminutive of the more regal and elegant ‘Jacqueline’ itself an attempt to bring something distant into focus. Since this 2016 drama about the persona and actions of Jacqueline Kennedy, specifically in the days around the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, deals with a historical personage and momentous events, we can allow borrowing allusion from a famous observer on another elusive subject. In 1939, when Stalin made a pact with Hitler,Winston Churchill mused Russia was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. If someone as reflective as Winnie can waft cigar smoke at a landmass and mindset, let’s be democratic and scale down a statesman’s shrug about How & Why to an unheralded Who & When nod akin to a parade spectators glimpse of an icon, one we’ve seen, will see, all our lives. Known to expanding millions, known by a diminishing roomful.*
Running a taut 99 minutes, the tack taken is half-recreation of scenes beheld either live on TV (for an entire generation an intimate collective spectacle, impossible to forget) or in countless documentaries and a slew of mostly mediocre movies; the other half-speculative, guesswork moments about private conversations that have no record or living witnesses to corroborate. The chronology weaves back and forth over the days following Dallas, with flashbacks to scenes earlier in the White House, as the stunned but serene Jackie (Natalie Portman) conducts a private interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup, standing in as facsimile for Theodore H. White).
From the first mournful notes of Mica Levi’s spare, mood-searing score, the selective framework of Noah Oppenheim’s script and the directorial emphases placed by Pablo Larraín at the helm invite us first and foremost to feel the myriad emotional crosscurrents playing through the stricken First Lady rather than to dryly tick off a clinical, investigative unraveling of facts. With the mesmerizing disappearance of Natalie Portman into as close an approximation of Kennedy as we’re likely to see, mightily aided by the arresting close-ups from cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, the greater part of the film, a tactile immersion into raw, vibrating resonance of wounded, defiant spirit succeeds in ripples of hushed admiration, for the artists and their subject.
Portman’s striking immediacy and dominating focus is so good (she’s in virtually every scene) that, in a manner fittingly reminiscent of the deliberate, amazingly composed actions taken by Kennedy for the funeral and transition she bridges the aspects of the movie that work smoothly with those that are jagged and odd. The recreated, purely factual scenes are deft and affecting, the camerawork surgically blending actual footage in with the cast, and the costume design is faultless, earning an Oscar nomination to go with those accorded the music score and leading lady.
Less successful are the brief, sloppy portraits of Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and Lady Bird (Beth Grant). Crudup’s line deliveries as ‘The Journalist’ are excellent, but someone (actor or director?) made a glaring error with his lazy attire, a gauche goof numerous reviewers notice: a professional reporter in an exclusive sit-down with that woman, at that time, would not look rumpled. He might as well have a fake orange nose. Another liability is the weird miscasting of Peter Saarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy: a good actor, but physically all wrong. Normally attuned, Saarsgaard was similarly off-kilter this same year muffing the Eli Wallach role in the insipid remake of The Magnificent Seven. (The best match yet for RFK remains Steven Culp in Thirteen Days). Casper Philippson bears a passable resemblance to JFK in his quick minute and forty seconds of screen time (when he speaks, Kennedy’s voice is dubbed in) but, just as Saarsgaard is too tall for his brother, Philippson is too slight for Jack. Rather than fault the actors, these weak links point in the direction, as it were, of director Larraín, possibly too young (only 29) and, coming from Chile, simply too unfamiliar with the period and too centered on Jackie/Portman to address the flaws. In the wake of Portman’s excellence, they’re not crippling, but they do blemish the total.
Back on the plus side, there is warm work from Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s secretary and confidante Nancy Tuckerman, a neat pass from Richard E. Grant as family friend and White House decorator William Walton and a thoughtful career-wrap cameo from John Hurt as a (fictional) priest consoling the widow.
It may be a flawed film, but Portman’s incarnation is pitch-perfect. At 34, the same age as Kennedy in 1963, her features are bit sharper than Jackie’s, she’s four inches shorter and has a slighter carriage, but she’s at least as good a physical fit as any of the 15 actresses who’ve previously donned the pink dress and pillbox hat and she handily acts them all into a superfluous corner. Deeper than her precise mimic of Kennedy’s delicately layered voice is an utterly confident modulation of posture, both graceful and awkward, atomized into mood and temperament in the throes of being whipsawed by incredible trauma, crushing duty and implacable fate. It’s a stellar job, in a role fraught with chances for misstep, about someone resolutely private in an impossible public situation. In her eyes, you’re seeing Jacqueline Kennedy.
Produced for a frugal but sufficient $9,000,000, earning $24,600,000, with Max Casella, Stéphan Höhn, Julie Judd, Georgie Glen, Sunnie Pelant.
*The most famous woman of her time became one of the most famous women of All Time, as surely identifiable and emblematic as Helen of Troy, Cleopatra or Marie Antoinette. Whether you saw it unfold on a black & white screen back in that distant autumn chill, or are young and wonder what all the fuss is about, whether you idealize ‘Camelot’ or got sick of a thousand magazine covers, you’d have to be some rare breed of heartless cretin not to be impressed by Jackie Kennedy’s heroic handling of those four days in November, 1963. For her husband, her family, the country, legacy, history, with the whole world watching, she truly gave the performance of a lifetime.