It’s Academy Award season, and that means a slate of films with heavyweight roles designed to capture Oscars. Enter, plummeting, Jackie starring Natalie Portman, who plays Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis—‘Jackie’ for short. I write “plummeting” because the opening shot of this movie finds Jackie walking at Hyannisport just a week after her husband, President John F. Kennedy, has been buried. Still in the haze of post-assassination days, Jackie’s stroll is highlighted by a musical score that gives the impression the woman is cascading, tumbling, careening…plummeting as she tries to come to grips with what has happened. Has there ever been a character entrance (George Scott’s ‘Patton’ maybe) more conceived to signal to Academy members, vote for this performance?
Taking off my cynical chapeau, notions of control or lack thereof are at the heart of this movie. In a sequence the filmmakers keep returning to, Jackie is shown giving a tour of the White House to a newsman. She seems uncomfortable, unsure, directed by others how to speak and to smile. She wants to be a million miles away but cannot. After the assassination, she is literally being handled by others, pressed in this direction, guided in another. Her world spun out of control the day her husband was murdered, but in truth it might have been beyond her grasp long before that.
Jackie has an interesting angle on the Kennedy assassination story. Rather than delving into conspiracies, Warren Commissions, and politics, this movie is an inner drama, oftentimes quiet and haunting, played against the loudest and most shrill place in the world: Washington DC. It focuses almost exclusively on Jackie herself as she deals with funeral arrangements, moving out of the White House, a key interview with a reporter, and, most importantly, her torment.
There are two ways to see this movie. The first is about a woman who never wanted to be at the center of the world. The second concerns the same woman trying to establish an identity in said world despite the demands of people (mostly men) who want to chisel one out for her. The men in this movie, from politicians to reporters to priests, seem to talk over her, around her, through her. They are awed by her but don’t respect her. What does she believe? We don’t know. What does she want? Hard to say. I’m not sure the movie wants to provide answers or is able to. It’s all too complex, like the web of theories that sprung up post-assassination about who was at the bottom of it all. But that’s what is a little frustrating. We want to understand Jackie more but in the end do not. Perhaps that is the point, but it could also be a weakness.
A few words on Natalie Portman’s performance. It is impressive, though I found her imitation of Jackie Kennedy’s accent distracting. An artistic work should naturally strive for verisimilitude, but when it seems there is more effort put into burnishing the actress’s performance, as opposed to the character’s authenticity, it is a fault. I say this because the most notable other role in this movie is Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy. The famed Kennedy accent, as played by Sarsgaard, is somewhat muted, which makes one wonder why the filmmakers would underplay such a famous cadence in one character but go to great lengths to make another’s stand out.
Portman won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Black Swan, but this effort strikes me as a more mature one. In Black Swan she played an unbalanced ballet dancer, and sex appeal was a strong part of the role. In Jackie, her performance relies not at all on skin or outré scenes. Instead, she must summon all her internal powers to bring a very misunderstood woman to life. Will Academy Award voters be convinced she succeeds? Whether or not Portman wins her second statue, it’s clear she’s grown beyond the girlish coyness that gave rise to her fame, and, like Jackie, is striving to cement her own place in the world as a woman.
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and John Hurt
Running Time: 91 minutes