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Review: Jackie (2016)

Jackie (2016)

Directed by: Pablo Larrain

Premise: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his widow Jackie (Natalie Portman) attempts to make funeral arrangements while consoling her children and dealing with the pressures of being a public figure. 

What Works: Jackie is primarily about the former First Lady as she went about making funeral arrangements for President John F. Kennedy but that is a framework for the movie to explore other aspects of this woman’s identity. Jackie is a complex character study of a woman who is also a political figure, a celebrity, and an icon and the way in which the filmmakers weave together these various pieces is impressive. The story is told with a frame narrative structure; the movie begins with an interview between Jackie Kennedy and a magazine writer some time after the funeral and Kennedy makes it clear that she intends to edit the final article to her liking so as to control her public image. That neatly sets up the rest of the film. Jackie is a look at a person who is operating somewhere between being herself and what other people need her or expect her to be. This is the reality for most people in the public eye and by setting the story at this devastating moment, the filmmakers are able to explore the nuances of having a public identity. As dramatized in this picture, Jackie Kennedy had to go through the trauma of burying her husband and guiding her children through that loss but she also had to put on a funeral in a way that would allow the nation to grieve as well. There is an additional aspect to this and that concerns the Kennedy legacy. In the film, Jackie is determined to send off her husband’s presidency in a way that mythologizes him and the idea of Camelot that had been so central to the Kennedy family name. In this respect, Jackie is about the way in which a legacy and a public image are crafted and stage managed. This is reinforced by periodically reverting to the post-funeral interview in which Jackie Kennedy and the reporter discuss the events that were just dramatized and revise them or deliberately impose an interpretation. Jackie succeeds in large part due to the lead performance by Natalie Portman in the title role. As Jackie Kennedy, Portman plays a woman who is herself performing. The actress perfectly calibrates her performance in such a way that we see Jackie Kennedy’s social cunning but also her grief, allowing the film to be personal even while the character is unable to do so.

What Doesn’t: Most of the actors in Jackie have been cast or made up to look like the real life people they are portraying. There are two glaring exceptions to this. John Carroll Lynch does not look much like Lyndon B. Johnson and the film has an awkward regard for the President and his wife Lady Bird Johnson, played by Beth Grant. At several points, Jackie Kennedy praises the Johnsons and says they have been very generous in a difficult time but the movie doesn’t actually demonstrate that kindness. It may be that Kennedy’s kind words about the Johnsons are disingenuous politeness but the film doesn’t make this clear. Also mismatched with his historical counterpart is Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. Sarsgaard is a fine actor but he does not possess the charisma or personable qualities of the younger Kennedy brother. Jackie also suffers from being a bit overwrought. The film reaches a logical finale but then keeps going a bit longer than it should. There are a few sequences that reiterate the same themes, namely the reenactment of Kennedy’s death which is shown several times and with diminishing returns. The music score to Jackie by Mica Levi is disruptive to the movie. It is sometimes intrusive but that may be a result of the way the sound was mixed than it is a fault of Levi’s score.

Bottom Line: Jackie is an ambitious movie about the conflict between public and private identities and the nuances of public grief. The film is smartly written and features a terrific central performance by Natalie Portman.

Episode: #633 (February 5, 2017)