As the lights went down in the theater before the beginning of Jackie, I suddenly realized that my only impressions of Jackie Kennedy came from still pictures and muted newsreel footage which left me with no idea what her voice actually sounded like. Then, once Natalie Portman started speaking as the titular character, it was so strange and off-putting that I found myself distracted whenever she appeared onscreen. I remember thinking to myself, “That can’t be right. It sounds too breathy and affected” (and yes, I do use words like ‘affected’ in my inner dialogue). As soon as I could, I went onto YouTube to find an audio recording of Jackie and yep, that was exactly what she sounded like. At least I can’t blame Natalie Portman for that.
Who I can blame for the many shortcomings of this film is its director Pablo Larraín. While there is no question that Natalie Portman is an outstanding actress, I could do without Mr. Larraín’s seemingly fanatical obsession with filling the entire screen with Ms. Portman’s face from chin to hairline. I value holding an introspective reaction shot for an extra beat as much as the next guy, but it can be hung out there for too long. At some point it goes beyond an actor portraying a character’s inner turmoil and turns into self-indulgent Oscar bait. For what she was asked to do, Natalie Portman did an excellent job. It was the script and direction that let her down.
The plot itself is centered around an interview Jackie is giving shortly after her husband’s assassination. As Jackie recounts her story, the movie flashbacks to whatever events are being discussed, primarily her role in planning JFK’s funeral. We have no idea of how long that process took because one issue is the glaring lack of contextual clues to place the action into any sort of a comprehensible timeline. By the end, I felt like a month had passed between the assassination and the funeral when in actuality it was only three days. There is no sense of urgency in the pacing of those scenes, which would have added another element of dramatic weight to the proceedings.
I will say this is one case where the title says it all. This is a movie about Jackie… and nobody else. Unfortunately, if focuses so much on her that ironically the audience learns almost nothing about her. Humans are defined by their interactions, and I can’t recall a single meaningful conversation she had with another character. Instead, we are left with long meandering shots of her walking through an empty White House while the high-pitched downstroke of a violin screeches in the background. Those scenes, and there are several, kept calling to my mind little Danny Torrance riding his Big Wheel through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. I kept half-expecting Jack Nicholson to pop out from behind a potted plant with an ax in his hand. By the end, I was hoping for some classic Jack to give the film some life and energy. Or at least a little humanity.
While no one would doubt that her grief in the aftermath of her husband’s death would be horrendous, especially in light of the circumstances, it doesn’t excuse the film from not at least acknowledging the loss other people close to the President must have felt at that time. I found this self-centered attitude most off-putting in the scene where Jackie and Bobby Kennedy were riding with JFK’s body in a hearse after returning to Washington D.C. True, it was her spouse in the casket, but it was also Bobby’s brother. Perhaps the director hoped to illustrate the chasm between being a born member of the Kennedy clan and being connected through marriage, but the lack of a sense of shared grief made Jackie appear shrewish and unsympathetic. I purchased my ticket hoping to gain some insight into Jackie Kennedy’s life both in and out of the White House. If anything, I actually came away with a lowered opinion of her.
By all accounts, Jackie Kennedy was an intelligent woman who lived a life under the media microscope with grace and dignity. She certainly didn’t do anything to deserve being called upon to hold her husband’s shattered skull together while racing to the hospital a mere four months after losing her two-day-old son to a respiratory illness. Instead, I would argue she deserves a film that allows the viewer to find the human behind the bloodstained pink dress and pillbox hat. Natalie Portman is clearly the right actress, unfortunately, Jackie is simply the wrong movie.