Friday, December 9, 2016

Odd Casting Chills A Jumpy 'Jackie'

This review originally appeared on

Natalie Portman, who began her career as a child actress, moved on to play both a manic pixie girl and a sci-fi princess, has grown up to be a very controlled actress. Even when playing someone losing her mind, in Black Swan, the role that won her an Oscar, she never felt dangerous. So it's kind of perfect for her to be cast as Jackie Kennedy, one of the coolest cucumbers to ever enter the public eye.

At the center of the movie Jackie is an interview the former First Lady gives to someone only known as the Journalist (Billy Crudup). It's a weird set-up because the journalist seems completely bored, put out, and confrontational, as if he had been forced into interviewing Mrs. Kennedy a mere week after the murder of the President, instead of recognizing it to be the journalistic coup it is. (The character is loosely based on Theodore H. White, whose Life Magazine article "For President Kennedy: An Epilogue," did indeed run a week after the assassination.)

In light of the Journalist's disposition, I don't blame this cinematic Jackie for being defensive, insisting that nothing will be going to print without her input and editing, something that even happens during the course of the interview itself. "Don't think for a minute I'm going to let you print that," she tells him after one exchange, puffing on her cigarette. "Also, I don't smoke."

The narrative jumps around, showing us a behind-the-scenes look at Jackie Kennedy's famous televised tour of the White House, conducted one year after her husband took office; the day of the assassination itself; and the days after, when Jackie had to plan the funeral, something she clearly felt was the most important contribution she'd ever make towards her husband's legacy.

But as a whole, the movie is very cold. Director Pablo LarraĆ­n shoots much of it in a very controlled, almost Kubrickian way. There are lots of close-ups of the actors talking directly at the camera, as well as slow tracking shots following the characters through the halls of the White House, and amongst the tombstones of misty Arlington National Cemetery. Peter Skarsgaard, who looks and sounds nothing like his subject, plays an oddly stoic Robert Kennedy. Greta Gerwig, as Nancy Tuckerman, hunches over tiny Portman (who is several inches shorter than the actual Jackie), in a role simply not suited to her quirky talents.

Jackie Kennedy's firsthand description of the assassination was never made public during her lifetime, but what the movie depicts is clearly modeled after the interview that was published posthumously, every gory detail of it. It's so visceral it almost feels exploitative.

It's the moments surrounding the event that are some of the film's strongest, and it's in those scenes, where Portman's performance — when her breathy take on Jackie's unique voice is quieted — that she has the most impact. The scene where she tearfully wipes her husband's blood of her face is no doubt the film's For Your Consideration clip, but better still are the scenes of a slightly drunk Jackie wandering her rooms, trying on ball gowns she'll now never need to wear at the White House, and the black dresses she will.

If Jackie the film accomplishes anything, it's to help to cement the fact that Jackie Kennedy did some extraordinary things following her husband's death. She chose to walk behind his casket in the funeral procession, vulnerable to a public that, just a few days prior, had proven to be deadly. She insisted her husband be buried in Washington D.C. and not his home state ("He belongs to the people," was her defense of that choice), and ultimately, it was she who helped to create the mythical President Kennedy and their Camelot, which was a lovely symbol for a President who, because of his assassination, wasn't allowed to create any real kind of legacy.

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