JACKIE is a movie about grief. It’s not about politics, nor about feminism, nor about style or fashion, nor is it particularly about the assassination of John F. Kennedy himself.
Indeed we literally barely see JFK at all, the president having just a few lines in flashback scenes, nearly a cameo role.
It’s one of the many wise decisions by director Pablo Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim which lift this film above the sentimental schlock it easily could have been in lesser hands.
Natalie Portman portrays the widowed First Lady and obviously spent a lot of time learning Jackie Kennedy’s quietly sardonic speaking style and patrician cadence. It is not direct mimicry, however. Jackie’s deep, introverted reserve -- often shorthanded to “dignity” by the media – is not just an outward trait but part and parcel of how she deals with the loss of both her husband and of her own identity as First Lady.
The timeframe involves just a few days, from Air Force One’s landing in Dallas through a short while after the funeral and burial of the president.
As a framing/bookend device, the movie uses Jackie’s later conversation with Life magazine reporter Theodore H. White (finely played by Billy Crudup) who will write the first nationally published interview with the former First Lady after the assassination.
Their interlocution is by turns wryly funny and tense, but serves chiefly to show another window into how Jackie copes with the loss, and with what she has learned about herself while doing so.
As I said, the movie’s about grief, and it moves with the sure slowness of a funeral dirge. The tempo won’t be to everyone’s liking, but this is a character study, not a history/period piece, so the slow pace is intentional and essential.
Our society is extremely uncomfortable with grief. Actors are usually pretty bad at conveying it, and even real people aren’t always convincing at it, as we often see when victims of true-life tragedies seem oddly unaffected and tearless in front of the news cameras.
Portman, however, expertly conveys how people truly mourn immediately after a loss, a mix of comatose shock, real flowing tears, and deep sobbing. Some will say this star turn is just Oscar bait, but this is a legitimately Oscar-worthy performance, precisely because it is so free of actorly mannerism.
The film is full of striking scenes, both visually and emotionally. We see the moment when Lyndon Johnson takes the oath of office on board Air Force One, with Jackie forced to stand and say nothing as she realizes in that instant she is no longer First Lady.
We see the sad reality of her having to almost immediately pack her things, since the White House must be vacated for its new occupants. (“A First Lady must be ready to pack her bags on a moment’s notice,” she says to the reporter. “It’s inevitable.”)
We see Jackie break the news to her two young, now fatherless children – another fine scene which eschews rote cliché.
The closest thing to a subplot involves the complicated relationship between Jackie and her brother in law Bobby Kennedy (magnificently underplayed by Peter Sarsgaard).
Sarsgaard’s decision to focus on Bobby’s personality traits rather than physical traits is simply brilliant -- as opposed to using an over-the-top Bah-ston accent, as almost every other actor who takes on the role of the former Attorney General has done.
And here again we see wise storytelling. Though the audience knows Bobby will himself be killed by an assassin’s bullet just a few years later, the film avoids clumsy foreshadowing, keeping the focus always on Jackie herself.
One minor shortfall of the movie is its fleeting, almost perfunctory way of addressing the uncomfortable reality of the numerous and legendary infidelities of President Kennedy.
Don’t get me wrong -- I’m glad the movie isn’t a soap opera, with people yelling and throwing things.
But the deeply traumatic pain his constant, callous betrayal must surely have caused her – she admits to her priest (John Hurt) that theirs was an essentially sexless marriage – is wrapped up a wee bit too quickly.