"Jackie" Ends Up A Spotty But Substantial Look At An Icon

The cult of personality surrounding the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis finally gets the film it’s burned for in Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie.” Natalie Portman headlines as the recently widowed 34-year-old former first lady, just a week removed from her husband’s assassination. From the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, she recounts the preceding weeks to Life magazine journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup). With the duo’s poker-faced interplay serving as a backdrop, Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim shepherd us through the gatehouse of Jackie’s self-ascribed Camelot, painting an ornate picture of life as a Kennedy; exacting how this interview-turned-negotiation would itemize, fine-tune, and then cement John F. Kennedy’s legacy for the masses.

The aftermath is a beautiful, bewildering film that bounces from haunting to overblown and back again without a moment’s notice, ending up an oddity most befitting of its subject.

Stéphane Fontaine’s plush photography and Mica Levi’s oppressive score set the stage for Portman’s performance. Armed with a breathy mid-Atlantic accent, the Oscar winner goes to great lengths to mirror the aforementioned audiovisual idiosyncrasies. Her portrayal is by turns so delicate it seems she might break, and madly over the top – juxtaposition that Larraín doesn’t take lightly. His film is not a meditation on death or grief or political fallout, but a quest to bridge the gap between art and artifice, between Jacqueline Bouvier from Long Island and Jacqueline Kennedy from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In brief, it’s about celebrity. American mythmaking.

Crucially, we never forget we’re watching Natalie Portman. Jackie O remains such a pillar of the pop culture consciousness that to mime would be to miss the point. So Portman and her director have designed their own Jackie, one through which they can best deliver their occasionally daffy ideas of what might have gone on behind the scenes in those few horrific, historic weeks. Take, for example, a moment late in the film in which Jackie observes her own pop culture ascension via department store mannequins adorned with her signature look. It’s a bit of ferociously on-the-nose symbolism that might seem ridiculous out of context, but in the unreal world that Larraín has constructed? Perfectly normal.

The filmmaker even goes so far as to masterfully fuse archival footage to his movie, to draw our guards down. This digital trickery is most noticeable in a sequence that reconstructs Jackie’s 1962 televised tour of the White House. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice the seams in the audio and video; most won’t have the faintest idea that they’re seeing a combination of real and re-created footage. It’s so convincing, in fact, that it functions as a sort of Trojan Horse, cuffing the film to reality as to let its histrionics through practically unnoticed.

Portman’s Jackie casts such a large shadow that the supporting cast is largely lost in the shuffle. Crudup holds his own in what amounts to a rather small role. But Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy doesn’t conjure anything anybody would normally associate with Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig’s Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman played by Greta Gerwig never flickers to life, and John Hurt’s priest (a composite of elders that the real Jackie confided in) is nothing more than a backboard for Jackie bounce thoughts and feelings off of.

The Lyndon Johnson corner of the film is a little more effective. John Carroll Lynch might look nothing like our 36th President who was so hastily sworn in on Air Force One a little more than two hours after Jack Kennedy was pronounced dead, but he and Beth Grant as Lady Bird Johnson are sneakily great performers who give some life to the tension between the Johnson and Kennedy clans. The same goes for Max Casella as the lightly villainous Jack Valenti, Johnson’s right hand man and the future president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The actor who plays JFK himself, Caspar Phillipson, is the President’s spitting image but barely registers – and yet, like his fellow supporting players, that might be the point. This is Jackie’s film, seen through the rose-colored glasses of her own design, retroactively constructing her version of Jack’s presidency. This lends an interesting unreliable narrator perspective to the film that goes under-explored. Instead “Jackie” climaxes in a blunt force use of the title song from Alan Jay Lerner’s 1960 musical Camelot, hammering home the former first lady’s divinization of her time in the White House with one final blow.

Both Portman’s turn and the film itself are striking, if not quite electric – the subject is much too restrained for that – tied with a bow of visual iconography that’s gone unmatched in 2016. The production design and cinematography are nonpareil. The film itself is not flawless – at times it even borders on clumsy – but it’s a savory ode to celebrity in a time when the word “celebrity” has come to mean so little that it’s applied to YouTube video game reviewers. After all, Jackie O nearly invented the lifestyle: impossible glamour accompanied by deep, quiet suffering. The true mark of an icon.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 2, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Pablo Larraín
Screenwriter: Noan Oppenheim
Starring: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Caspar Phillipson
MPAA Rating: R (for brief strong violence and some language)