JACKIE, biographical drama, rated R; Regal DeVargas, Violet Crown; 2.5 chiles
Pablo Larraín’s Jackie focuses on three days in 1963, from that fateful Nov. 22 motorcade in Dallas through the state funeral for the slain president on the 25th. The film goes outside that box with flashbacks, but only as far as the Kennedy White House years, and Larraín brackets the whole with the arrival of an unnamed (perhaps Theodore White) journalist (Billy Crudup) to interview the grieving widow in her Hyannis Port home. Jackie is a chain-smoking mix of porcelain and steel. She warns her visitor that she insists on final edit of the interview, “in case I don’t say what I mean.”
Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy, and she makes piercingly real the anguish, the disorientation, and the determination of this young (thirty-four) woman coping with tragedy in the furnace of the world’s shocked attention. Decisions had to be made in compressed time, from the planning of the pageantry that would define the death of the president and assure the romantic legacy of Camelot, to the sudden, rushed removal over a weekend from a house where she had expected to live for two to six more years.
But playing a historical figure who is still vivid in the minds of many is a tricky business. Portman hits convincing notes in conveying the human drama, and there are stretches where she succeeds in inhabiting the young widow who was already the most famous woman in the world even before that momentous weekend. But there is also a sense of impersonation. She does the famous Jackie whisper, but it feels like Portman doing it, not Jackie speaking. It sometimes veers toward caricature, and can be drowned out by Mica Levi’s overwhelming score.
One of the key decisions by Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim is to recreate a portion of Jackie Kennedy’s famous televised tour of the White House. It’s easy to go back and look at the original on YouTube, and the comparison is not kind to Portman’s version. Her effort to show the first lady’s insecurities bleeds too openly into the persona she shows as she prepares and then goes before the camera. She’s coached and supported from the sidelines by her loyal aide Nancy Tuckerman, played by Greta Gerwig, who towers over Portman by nearly half a foot, drawing unfortunate attention to the discrepancy between the tall, elegant Jackie and the diminutive actress wearing her clothes.
There’s good supporting work by a large cast, including a slightly overaged-looking Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, John Hurt as a priest, and John Carroll Lynch as a heavy, glowering LBJ. But for better and for worse, it’s Portman’s show.
The three days covered by this movie were among the most wrenching in our history, although we’ve had others, before and since, that have disrupted the path of our country and the way we live our lives. Larraín, the gifted Chilean director of No and Neruda, makes his American movie debut here, and takes a decent stab at describing the events of that cataclysmic weekend, and humanizing the person we have mythologized beyond recognition. But a real connection remains elusive. As Jackie says in the movie, “There’s a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be true.” — Jonathan Richards