In late November 1963, Americans were mourning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s young, idealistic, and popular President. The country was focused on him, in shock over his loss. But what about the First Lady—not the poised dignitary over whom everyone fawned, but the woman who’d vowed to be his wife, till death do them part?
Pablo Larraín’s Jackie tells the well-known story of JFK’s assassination from Jacqueline Kennedy’s point of view. As you may have heard, Natalie Portman portrays Jackie; she’s in nearly every scene as Larraín (shooting his first U.S. film after Chile-set No and The Club) and scripter Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner, Allegiant) imagine how she navigated the four days after her husband’s murder.
Jackie is framed by an interview Kennedy gave to a journalist who, in this film, goes unnamed (Billy Crudup) but is based on LIFE reporter Theodore H. White. It not only reveals how the Kennedy White House became known as “Camelot,” but, more crucially, portrays Jackie as the editor of the family mythos; she directly tells the reporter that the article will say only what she wants it to say. Kennedy also comes across as prickly during their talk, twisting the reporter’s offhand comments and bristling when he references the televised White House tour she gave in 1961 (which Larraín partially re-creates) and dares suggest that she could have a career in broadcasting.
The rest of the film is a kaleidoscope that swirls together moments from the day of the assassination to the day of JFK’s burial. Some are heartbreaking, such as when Kennedy tells her children that their father had to go to heaven; some are awkward, such as when Lady Bird Johnson, the new First Lady, is spotted choosing some drapes. Most of Jackie, though, involves close-ups of Portman, usually weeping or otherwise looking confused and distressed, except when she’s dictating the funeral arrangements.
And because Oscar loves a mimic, the Academy should just etch her name on a golden statue now. Yes, the actress nails Jackie’s soft, breathy, almost brittle voice. Yes, she moves about with the perfect posture and grace that Kennedy was known for. Yet her Jackie rarely feels lived-in, and her line delivery often looks awkward as she tries to wrap her mouth around Kennedy’s unusual enunciation. The acting is conspicuous—she’s not the former First Lady, she’s Natalie Portman in a period wig.
Her most prominent supporting cast doesn’t fare that well, either. Peter Sarsgaard is terrible as Bobby Kennedy, usually not even bothering with the family’s New England accent. And Greta Gerwig is wasted and miscast as Nancy, Jackie’s social secretary—let’s just say that the ’60s style isn’t a good look for her. John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant, as the Johnsons, and John Hurt, as a priest, make more memorable impressions. (Ted Kennedy, though an actor is credited with the part, is nowhere to be found.)
Composer Mica Levy, who did such a fantastic job with 2013’s Under the Skin, goes for plodding melodies here—with the exception of an effective drone that sounds like a sinking stomach—but it’s fitting for the plodding plot. Despite all of Kennedy’s tears, all the blood on her face and famous suit, and all the graphicness of the assassination re-creation that Larraín sneaks in at the end, very little emotion comes through; the story doesn’t bring the viewer any more deeply into Kennedy’s world than the photographs and video footage (some of which is sparingly used here) we’ve already seen.
When Bobby gets angry and tells Jackie, “We’re ridiculous. Look at you,” it’s unclear what he means within the constraints of the story. Regarding the film itself, though, the line is more apt.
Jackie opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema, Landmark Bethesda Row, and the Angelika Film Center.