Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on various players.
I can’t say that I was overly excited about the prospect of Jackie, a feeling that was intensified the moment Natalie Portman opened her mouth. It’s worth noting that I honestly have no idea what Jackie Kennedy actually sounded like. It’s such an unusual intonation, but it is evidently quite accurate. It’s just so strange, breathy and with words pronounced so oddly that it was difficult to get my mind around initially.
Jackie is, of course, less the story of Jackie Kennedy than it is the story of her experience after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The film does jump in time a bit, although in the main it follows her life in those days after Kennedy was killed in Dallas. The frame of the film’s narrative is an interview she gives to an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup). Scenes take place that come across more or less as her memories of those days, either being explained to this interviewer or in her own memory as he asks questions. I don’t mean to say that it’s dreamlike, but that it plays something like a flashback.
This feeling is only enhanced by a statement made by Jackie early in the film as the interview begins. She tells the interviewer that she will edit the conversation so that it says exactly what she intended rather than what she may have said. It lends a feeling to the proceedings that what we are seeing has been partially redacted or reimagined.
There is a narrative here, but it’s one that is not easy to parse out of everything that happens. In fact, it’s not something I’m going to attempt to do. It really does come across like flooding memories of the White House being packed up and the planning of the funeral and the procession to Kennedy’s burial place in Arlington. It is a pastiche of Jackie’s grief and struggle to hold anything together in those days while the business of the country necessarily needed to continue around and through her grief.
Instead, the film is a collection of performances that surround the central performance of Natalie Portman. These include in particular Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s assistant Nancy Tuckerman, Richard E. Grant as Bill Walton, and Max Casella as Jack Valenti. Of particular note is John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, who looks only mildly like Johnson, but seems to embody the man in a significant way. It’s also worth noting that this was the final theatrical release of John Hurt, who plays Jackie’s more or less confessor throughout the film in a conversation that we see pieces of sporadically. Hurt, as was often the case, is something of a comforting presence over the proceedings; even with an Irish cast to his voice, it’s still that gravelly Hurt rumble.
But all of this is in service to Natalie Portman, and it is on her performance that the entire film stands or falls. It is, for lack of a better way to put it, the sort of polarizing performance that will draw both accolades and derision. It is, and there is no real other way to put this, Natalie Portman playing the role of Jackie Kennedy, who in the course of the film is playing the role of the Jackie Kennedy that America needed during those dark days in late November, 1963. Portman attempts (and I think generally succeeds) at not just playing Jackie Kennedy, but playing the string of emotions and thoughts she must have been experiencing. It is a layered performance because she is acting the role of someone attempting to act a role that she was not prepared to play, the grieving parent of the entire country.
And yet I think there are people who will find it very off-putting because it is so measured and strange and affected. It has to be, of course, because that is what it is in large part. It is a performance of Jackie Kennedy mourning publically for the nation. I think it is the sort of role that cements Portman as one of the better actors currently working, a piece of chameleonic work that rivals much of what I’ve seen this year. I though Portman was brilliant in Black Swan, and while this is a very different film, she is no less brilliant here.
It’s also worth mentioning the very strange soundtrack created by Mica Levi. Levi, notably, did the grating soundtrack for Under the Skin, a film that underwhelmed me and was nonetheless a critical darling. There are similarities to the soundtrack here, but in Jackie, I think it works. It is disorienting and strange, and matches not the movie, but the emotions of the title character. It’s not a soundtrack I would want to listen to without the movie, but it is one that adds greatly to the film on the screen.
Why to watch Jackie: Natalie Portman gives a performance of a performance that is staggering.
Why not to watch: You need to take a lot on to understand what Natalie Portman is doing.