FILM REVIEW – JACKIE. With Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt. Written by Noah Oppenheim. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Rated R for brief strong violence and some language. 99 minutes.
We’ve known for some time that Natalie Portman is a fine actress, but with her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in JACKIE, she steps into the front ranks. This is a highly nuanced performance letting us see both the public persona as First Lady and her quiet and steel-willed actions behind the scenes. The result is one of the best films of 2016.
In terms of the timeframe, writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larrain work within a narrow range. Jackie is giving an interview in the days following the funeral for her late husband to someone identified only as “the Journalist” (Billy Crudup), a fictional version of real-life writer Theodore White. She recounts the November weekend in which President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, as well as the preparations for the funeral.
However, the film does not present us with a straightforward narrative. We see happier moments, such as her televised tour of the White House and the performance of classical cellist Pablo Casals there. Mostly, though, we see her coping with the shock of her husband dying in her arms and then having to plan both a funeral and an abrupt transition and departure from the White House. Noting that few people remember James Garfield or William McKinley–two presidents who were also killed in office–she turns to the proceedings following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as a model. Is this to preserve and cement her husband’s legacy–when he had so much yet to accomplish–or is this about herself?
The film’s portrait of Jackie is complex. At one point she notes she never wanted to be famous but then she married a Kennedy and being out of the public spotlight was no longer an option. Knowing how much he and his beautiful wife and young children meant to the self-image of the nation, she opts to preserve the notion of the era as “Camelot,” even listening a recording of the Broadway show that has been forever linked to the Kennedy mythology. As a character notes in John Ford’s classic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.”
Portman lets us see Jackie at her most vulnerable and at her strongest, whether telling off her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard in a strong turn) for withholding information from her or telling the Journalist he can’t quote a revealing statement she just made because, she tells him with a straight face, “I never said that.” Several people, including a family priest (John Hurt) and her aide and confidante (Greta Gerwig), assure her she’s young and that her life isn’t over, but at that moment she’s focused on cementing the past, not facing the future.
“Jackie” gives us a woman who, in tragic circumstances, was a model of grace under pressure that still captivates and holds our attention more than half a century later. Of some four dozen actresses who have portrayed her on TV or film–including Katie Holmes, Jacqueline Bisset, Jaclyn Smith, and Blair Brown–this is the dramatic performance that will endure.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.