Fox Searchlight 99 minutes R
The Kennedy era was known as Camelot. JFK and Jackie were perceived as the ideal President and First Lady. This film directed by Chilean film director Pablo Larraín (Neruda) in his first English language feature pulls back the curtain to reveal the flip side of Camelot. The film includes details and reactions leading up to and including the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Billy Crudup plays a Life Magazine journalist interviewing Jackie in her first interview after the assassination. Crudup says that his part wasn’t in the original script. But Director Larraín chose to restructure the film around his asking questions of Jackie. There are actually four story lines that are followed in and out of that meeting. The flashbacks are necessary but sometimes the cuts are jarring, which may have been intentional to add to the drama. She also makes it perfectly clear that she has complete control over what is to be printed.
Natalie Portman says she studied videos to get Jackie’s breathless delivery and complicated, Long Island with finishing school overtones, accent just right. As soon as she put on the bouffant wig, Portman says she found the character. The heavy eyebrows, porcelain skin and perfect figure made Jackie a fashion icon in the White House. She also made it her mission to reacquire historic furniture and artifacts to redecorate “The People’s House.”
Director Larraín gives us a detailed look at the Presidential residence at that time, including going behind-the-scenes of the CBS TV special of Jackie’s tour of the White House. Greta Gerwig plays Jackie’s personal assistant, Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman, who advises and prods her to project a positive image during the live broadcast. Gerwig plays Jackie’s trusting sounding board and sticks with her all the way, gently influencing her actions and reactions.
Portman plays Jackie as no one’s fool. Even though her public persona was shy and refined, with the voice just above a whisper, Portman alternately shows the other side. This movie is also about politics. Jackie is shown as a cunning control freak. She makes demands and changes her mind almost as often as changing those Oleg Cassini designer gowns, drinking while thinking.
And her erratic behavior gets even more so after we all get to experience the trauma of the assassination right alongside her in the limo as the bullets tear her husband apart. It is powerful, excruciating and helps explain her unpredictable mood swings. To the world, she appears calm and in control, but there’s more going on. Even she says “I’m not some silly little debutante” to Bobby Kennedy, played by Peter Saarsgard. He tries to be her point person as a sounding board to guide her political decisions. He’s the buffer between she and Lyndon Johnson who is sworn in as President on the flight bringing the her husband’s body back to Washington immediately after the assassination. Tension mounts.
Sarsgaard as Bobby is also a character filled with quiet rage. We don’t get to know him until he and Jackie share their last moment in the White House where he finally lets loose. He feels the all-too-brief Kennedy era has been an utter and complete failure. He fears his brother and the family will be remembered as “beautiful people” signifying nothing. He thinks Jack may be remembered for the Cuban Missile Crisis, if at all. Bobby also bemoans the fact that Lyndon Johnson, not the Kennedys, will get the credit for winning in Viet Nam. Cruel irony!
And when the details come into play for the actual funeral, we get a close look at how Jackie wants to control every detail of the ceremony and processional, not only for JFK’s historic legacy but for her place in history. Her conversations with the blunt, crusty Priest, played by John Hurt, reveal even more of her personality and doubts about her life. The scene where she plods through muddy Arlington Cemetery to pick just the right spot to bury her husband is very telling. The music composed by Mica Levi throughout the film is ominous and sometimes discordant to intensify the emotions in scenes.
We don’t see that much of her children with Jackie. The scene where she is telling them that Daddy’s not coming home is one of the toughest moments to sit through. We then see the children by her side at the funeral, but the moment we thought was missing, was the iconic salute by little John John to his father’s casket. We were looking for that.
Portman’s portrayal of Jackie is probably well deserving of consideration during this awards season. This is a film filled with bad memories and there’s nothing comforting about it. But her portrayal is gut wrenching and somewhat mesmerizing. You don’t know what she’s going to do next and you can’t stop watching her, even if you’re not sure you like her. This is not a warm, loving portrait of America’s most famous widowed First Lady. This film is a history lesson for young people who did not live through this tragedy. And a powerful one.