By Daniel Reif
The 1963 assassination of “Jack” Kennedy lasted seconds, and his blood on American history, sewn into our collective psychosis forever… and saved by the camera. Saved by the numerous information, essays, and documentaries on the dooming end to legacy and greatness. Seconds gave us it all.
In Jackie, we are given the full press pass to America’s hours of grief bulleted by the grave seconds. We are given the time’s most intimate perspective- as Theodore White (Billy Crudup) utters near the end of the movie- the “mother of America”. From her view only: the dreamy shock of morning mourning, the sight of a nation lost, the dumbfound stillness in her dead husband’s colleagues, the grace of her children’s innocence, and the unimaginable detachment of a life previously built… never forgotten she was the First Lady.
Natalie Portman is the latest bearer to the prestige biopic lead, and director, Pablo Larrain, milks his subject’s monumental moment to peaks of narrative drama. His camera dances in Jacqueline Kennedy’s blemishes and tears, re-enacts brutal visuals we never saw or should’ve seen, and shies from the faces affected not by a husband’s instant death upon the lap of his wife.
Larrain’s score is invasive and menacing. Operatic screams of strings and sopranos join force to warp you into a spelling dash of disorienting memories featuring powers of history. A dreamscape arrises in a view of a single event, and it’s riveting griefs, not seen before.
Head-filling close-ups, empirical backgrounds, and jaunting music mark the realization of Noah Oppenheim’s script. Whether at times oppressive/excessive, at times profound and sublime, the script is never stolen its studious attempt to allow for a sweeping, American historical performance. A performance allowed for showcases in make-up, hair, and costume. A performance allowed for the delicious challenge of evocation inches from us; self-expression so close, it erases our psychosis and traps us in one person’s mind, body, and soul.
Jackie is all Natalie, and we never need to wait.
An unnamed reporter (Crudup, Theodore White in the credits), has arrived at the ex-first family’s grand shoreside complex in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. Already peaking his arrival through drapes, Ms. Kennedy opens the large white doors quickly, and slyly drills the wide-eyed man’s profession before acknowledging her wish for his time, laying out the interview’s circumstances, and they enter. This attitude of self-edit becomes our first glimpse into a complex figure, and the first entry into the real Life article released in ’63.
Hyannisport is rushing with a medium breeze and the two brisk the day’s grayish mood on the back porch, cigarettes placed steadily on the the fingers of Jackie. Undefined, almost childish, disgust seems to sit soundly in her presence, and curiosity stirs the man’s quest for her words.
Casually directed by the penner, she reflects on her contained, early career at the White House. The film takes little time to live its first re-enactment: the famously awkward White House Tour for CBS. Kennedy recounts the shame and embarrassment for a portrayal of staged decadence and forceful image-building. Larrain captures the recounts in an engaging collage of media, splicing in-person and grainy broadcasted dramatizations.
Her pain sparks the account of the fateful flight from Dallas to DC. The film will never shy from the juicy real-life events, and in turn, compel us to join the troubling inner circle of the assassination’s politics of crowns passing and tides turning. Moments like Portman removing the blood off her face in the plane’s stall before Lyndon B. Johnson is inaugurated, lift you off your seat, and achieve the most resonance in Larrain’s vision. When Portman, unchanged in that pink dress with red blotches, dizzies around a fatherless home, your throat clenches by the historical gravitas and damn grief. It notes the the lead’s impeccable ability to utilize the stilted physicality of Jackie’s career-crushing tour to underline a true feeling of despair inside the walls of the White House.
The turbulent story envelopes to players like Bobby Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard). On paper, a mute and strained bond of in-laws come into picture. The flight embraces them in arms, the return splits grievers of different agendas.
An un-lead nation colds America’s celebrated little brother. A loss of identity stuns America’s new poster widow. Oppenheim finds rich tension, and bitter whit, as the two passively collide over Bobby’s unfulfilled dreams of realizing brotherly global change, and Jackie’s unrealized goal of Lincoln-level historical significance. Their relationship plays into divisive condescension and imbalanced moods; an arch which has no redemption for two people who essentially realize they never knew each other.
This is the writing. On camera, the say-it-ain’t-so miscast of Saarsgard is the film’s first misstep. Is it the blackboard-scratching attempts at New England speak? Is it the dulling soft approach among large drama? Is it simply the man looks so unlike the famous figure he must adapt? I adamantly admire the subtle, sly, and smart star of twisted flicks like An Education and The Experimenter, but I can’t sponsor this corner of memory lane.
May I dearly sponsor the other participants. Jackie’s time immediately following the assassination ropes in some short supporting straws in the sudden recounts, but a few actors are able steal their frames.
John Carroll Lynch is fifth guy since Sunday to play Lyndon B. Johnson. No less than contemporaries like Bryan Cranston, he adapts the powerful succeeder to unique bounds. Jackie pushes Lynch’s performance to the silent side, and like the mourning lead’s inability to hand off the keys to a palace, LBJ and “Lady Bird” (a born-to-be Beth Grant) are short-handed credence to Jackie’s memories. No less we do we forget their presence.
Billy Crudup is a worthy banterer to a crowing personality, but exchanges ears with John Hurt’s “Priest”; the film intersperses a woodland faith walk between between him and Jackie. Once an unnecessary point of view into her mind, ends a harrowing strength of teach from a curiously-wordless-turned-triumphantly-philosophic Hurt.
Time is well spent in Jaqueline Kennedy’s search for meaning. Historic figures are craftily realized, and sparkle with grade-A design. A star is a star, but Natalie Portman couldn’t be one without a marvelous costume and make-up team. Larrain’s unrelenting dance with one character’s life above her neck requires exquisite attention to detail. His indulgence in a brief history requires the difficult task of respect to exact dress without creatively undermining the film’s bountiful scope.
I return to the fateful plane stall. Da Vinci calls to mind in a masterful single frame, a mirror painted with messed mascara sitting above sultry white blemish, silenced by loud spots of blood. Sylvie Aid (Key Make-Up), Catherine Leblanc (Key Hair), and company, are called to action continually to bring life to stilling images… and deliver.
It’s easy to highlight that Black Swan (Portman’s Oscar-winning vehicle) director, Darren Aronofsky, provides producer sight to Jackie. His vivid, 2011 psychological thriller, claims first honors to utilizing the up-close magic of Portman to detail a character portrait. The film also has surreal stretches of fantasy elements, and lives as a backstage drama; attempting extremely shifting moods honed by the down-to-tango production design.
Here, this decadent, furious approach favors and doesn’t. Jackie’s art head, Jean Rabasse, curates a team of knockout weavers of graceful colors, and bows trippily to Larrain’s dazzling vision of Dallas, Jackie’s White House, and the Hyannisport manor.
So much skill for sale. Unfortunately, Jackie is an uneven experience.
Mica Levi’s grandiloquent score is a menacing grief that terrorizes the mind of Jackie, screaming soprano haunts and tense strings at max volume. Larrain’s film means to disorient us with fiery music, but only tires us with alarming sound. It tugs perfectly with Stephane Fontaine’s (cinematographer) visual experiment in strenuous, extreme close-ups. Aggression plagues Jackie, but luckily, the movie still has “Jackie”.
Natalie Portman is the “prestige” actress of the year. Award nominations will be deserved for a performance of a legendary woman portrayed by a wealth of passion and sadness. Portman’s “Jaqueline Kennedy” gifts The Reporter the autobiographical portrait of their time, and shines in sharing the shock, grace, pettiness, beauty, deliriousness, intelligence, poetry, publicity, privacy, and enchantment of “America’s mother”. It may very well be the performance of her career, and without doubt, no one could better move us in those hours of loss than “Jackie” herself.
In theaters now.
Directed by Pablo Larrain, Screenplay by Noah Oppenheim – 2016 – Fox Searchlight – USA- 1hr 39 m