Thursday, December 1, 2016

Portrait of A First Lady: A Review of Jackie



JACKIE

Sometimes biopics opt to go broad, attempting to cover the entirety of a subject's life (example: Gandhi).  Sometimes, it opts to focus on a small aspect of a subject's life to give us a wider idea of who they were (example: The Queen).  Jackie, the biopic of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis) follows the latter, focusing primarily on the four days between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and his funeral (with segways to a post-funeral interview) into to give a portrait of a grieving widow, lost in history's fog and her own loss as to who she was now that she is no longer First Lady, and more importantly, what her husband's legacy will be.

The Journalist (Billy Crudup), more than likely Theodore H. White from Life Magazine (though he's never overtly named), comes to Hyannis Port to interview former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), the widow of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson).  He comes to do a piece on The Widow Kennedy to see how she is coping and to let the public know her state of being.

Mrs. Kennedy is not in a good place.  As we go through the interview (which is will edit to make sure things come out as she wishes them to), Jackie relives those awful days, from the assassination itself to the aftermath: bringing the body of The President back, planning both the funeral and their son John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s birthday party, all without falling apart as a world watches her grief.

In between all this planning: working to find a proper burial spot for her husband, going sometimes with, sometimes against her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), she also gets words of wisdom and encouragement from her priest (Sir John Hurt).

Jackie rages at God, attempts to give dignity to her husband, drinks, smokes, pulls herself together, comes apart, rises to the occasion of the State Funeral, comforts her children, and silently wails at being next to her husband as he dies right in front of her.

At the end of it all, she comes to a form of peace with the terrible burden placed on her, and begins to plant the idea that her husband's Presidency (which according to Bobby did not accomplish as much as he had hoped for), was not a failure.  Instead, the Kennedy Administration was the equivalent of a noble yet lost world, to 'don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot'.

The first, last, and greatest accomplishment in Jackie is Natalie Portman's performance.  This is simply the best performance by an actress this year, at least that I have seen.  Portman had two very difficult tasks as the former First Lady in Jackie.  First, she had to portray this icon of American history the way she is remembered: the soft, almost whispery voice, the elegant, patrician manner, the hesitancy that accompanied much of her public appearances (particularly the famous White House Tour she gave for television).

She also had to give us the private Jackie: the woman who had just witnessed her husband killed before her eyes, the mother who must tell her young children that their father is not coming home, the young widow left alone to wrestle with a dubious deity who robbed her of a husband and father to their children, the survivor who lives with regret.



Portman captures all of that in her performance as Jacqueline Kennedy.  It is impossible to not grieve when you see Jackie's anguish when preparing for President Johnson's swearing-in aboard Air Force One.  In her elegant pink outfit, she faces the mirror, awash in tears, the agony, shock, horror of what has happened in the last few hours overtaking her.  Amid her tears, she works to prepare to make herself presentable enough to see Johnson sworn in, but steadfastly refusing to remove the blood-stained outfit, determined to let the world see what they did to her husband.

At that moment, he was not The President.  He was 'her husband', the man she loved and lost when she saw his head blown off right before her horrified eyes. The anguish, the shock...it's all there in Portman's brilliant performance.  Whether attempting to explain the inexplicable to her children, or getting a little tipsy as her days in the White House wind down, Portman never hits a wrong note.

Portman also captures Jacqueline Kennedy's distinct voice and diction without it being mimicry.  Mrs. Kennedy's mannerisms, the way she moved, carried herself, the hesitancy, even slight fear when giving the White House Tour are also there.

Portman's performance is complete, capturing that public and private side (her anger at God is done with what I call 'elegant rage', but she also accepts the words of her priest, who tells her that she was chosen to do a special work from the Lord, one that carries it with a heavy burden but one He knows she can carry.

As Natalie Portman is the focal point of Jackie, some of her costars don't quite measure up.  I wonder if Sargaard (a good actor) was right for the role of Bobby Kennedy.  Either he didn't try for the distinct Massachusetts accent he had, or he couldn't manage one as well as Portman could manage Jacqueline's soft voice.  Also, Sarsgaard doesn't quite look like Bobby Kennedy either.  Still, while not the best version of RFK, Sargaard did a respectable job.

Crudup had little to do but be the interviewer (and I confess to thinking highly of his voice), and though he didn't have a large role he was a good sparring partner for Portman.  In his smaller role as Kennedy's confessor, Hurt showed a slight Irish charm and wit as a priest who must both console and attempt to explain the immensity of the tragedy.

At times I wasn't crazy over Mica Levi's score, at others I thought it went well with the film.  Pablo Larrain's direction was masterful as was Noah Oppenheim's screenplay.

I think some of my fellow critics have been a bit too enthusiastic when it comes to Jackie.  It doesn't alter biopics the way we know them.  However, with a tour de force performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie becomes an examination of both the public and private sides of this most elegant and enigmatic of women in a pivotal moment for both her as an individual and for the nation at large.        

1929-1994

DECISION: A-

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