There’s been a lot of buzz around Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy in the appropriately-titled Jackie. In fact, there’s been so much buzz around the performance that I’ve heard very little else about the movie. Obviously, I was aware that it follows Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, but, beyond that, I knew nothing.
The structure of the film is centered around an interview being conducted with Jackie following her husband’s death. The reporter (Billy Crudup, in the most subdued performance I can recall him giving) walks Jackie through the events, her emotions, and her coping mechanisms in order to craft the story he desires to tell. At the same time, Jackie declares that it’s her story, not his, and she’ll tell it the way she chooses.
Portman’s performance is worthy of the hype. I’ve always been frustrated by all of the attention that Jamie Foxx’s turn as Ray Charles in Ray received as that came off to me as more of an impression than as acting. This is not that. Sure, Portman does the accent and has been made up to look the part, but there’s depth to what she puts up onto the screen. Her every word conveys a combination of hopelessness and courage and the minutes following the assassination are especially powerful. That real-life event was on such a grand, public scale that we rarely – if ever – stop to recall that a woman saw her husband get murdered right next to her. His dead body, missing part of the head, collapsed into her lap. That’s the height of horror; the pinnacle of traumatic experiences. JFK was president to millions but husband to only one. Portman powerfully forces us to remember this.
But now I know why I hadn’t heard much about the rest of the film; there’s not much to it. There really is no story of which to speak. We just follow Jackie around, jumping to different moments in the chronology of the events, and see how she responds. The dialogue is mostly fine, but rather dull and uninspired. Some of it is downright forced in order to contrive what is intended to be a particularly moving line or scene and it just feels disingenuous. The worst offender is the scene where Jackie informs her and JFK’s children Caroline and John, Jr., about their father’s death. The children don’t speak or think as real children do and it takes one right out of the moment when you find yourself thinking, “A kid would never ask that!” It’s all intended to create an artificial gravitas that honestly isn’t necessary seeing as how most of the audience already feels connected to the story and the characters. They don’t need to be converted.
It’s pretty clear that director Pablo Larraín and the rest of his team wants Jackie to be an awards darling and that, quite frankly, is the problem. There’s virtually no meat to the film and so, realizing that, Larraín tries to force unnatural memorable moments on the viewer, hoping to fool them into feeling something that they wouldn’t otherwise be feeling. Combining that with Portman and the subject matter would hopefully be enough to get the film the desired attention, but it’s just not.
The film isn’t actively bad; most of it is simply existent. Portman shines and singlehandedly elevates the picture as a whole. Despite that, there are much better options out there, right now, for those looking to go into the awards season as informed viewers but who don’t have the ability to make it to the theater to catch all of the nominees. Portman and Kennedy family fans should check it out, though.
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