Dissecting the wife of the first modern celebrity president to become martyred through assassination—President Kennedy—is the aim of leading actress Natalie Portman’s tragic horror movie, Jackie. A pretentious, arduous fictionalization it is, too. Jackie is as grisly as a horror movie and as maudlin as a Tennessee Williams play.
No one can accuse writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larrain of romanticizing the Kennedys, though the president’s widow as the film’s subject garners some degree of sympathy. This, too, may depend on one’s take on the grief-stricken housewife with no apparent passion for anything except perhaps vanity, proximity to the opposite sex and prestige by the estimates of others. This may have been part of the intended point of Jackie, which is meant to be unnerving and is often merely uninteresting.
Beginning with a black screen, droning sounds and scattered shots of glimpses of the film’s three main focal points—the November 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas, a 1961 First Lady’s televised tour of the White House and a post-assassination meeting at the Kennedys’ property in Massachusetts—Jackie delves into dark moments. Given that it’s one of the most iconic, photographed presidencies, it’s hard not to want to watch what’s happening on screen, if for no other reason to match it up with famous pictures.
“I will be editing this conversation in case I don’t say exactly what I mean,” the First Lady tells an interviewer after the assassination in the movie’s framing device. In flashbacks to the deadly motorcade, hospital, Air Force One and the White House, the grieving widow’s lament comes in three arcs; before, during and after Dallas. It plays as a psychodrama, as Portman’s version of Jacqueline Kennedy sucks cigarettes, pops pills, melts down and confides, breathlessly wandering halls and rooms in her tidy little outfits like a battery-operated doll gone glitchy.
Jackie Kennedy was real and the movie that bears her name, enamored with her grief, hints at and shows nothing of what came before or after her White House Kennedy years, so there’s nothing about her Republican politics, interest in publishing or even much about what attracted her to her Catholic husband (whose presence in the movie is relegated to a few glimpses and a halting speech). The whole movie is overstyled, like a reality cable show’s recreation, focusing on the victim’s personality more than on pivot points in depicted events that define or recur over a lifetime (like The Queen, Lincoln or The Iron Lady). Jackie is moody, twitchy and awfully derivative. I do not think depicting a woman at her worst for nearly 90 consecutive minutes is inherently brilliant, however.
Jackie amounts to a re-enactment based on morbid curiosity. From scene to scene, certain tidbits emerge, from Mrs. Kennedy’s defense of guiding the White House tour, in which she finds “history, identity and beauty” in material possessions and points out that she funded restoration of the White House entirely through private donations to President Lincoln’s funeral as the impetus for her husband’s. The impressions soon fade amid more pill-popping than Valley of the Dolls, a distracting score, chain-smoking and a brutal portrayal of a shallow, unstable woman. “I used to make them smile,” she says to a priest (John Hurt, V for Vendetta) after asking what men will think of her now.
Add scenes with the kids and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) as the closest Jackie has to villains other than the grieving widow herself and her late husband, whose flaws are suggested, never named. As Mrs. John Kennedy, Portman is affected, overly mannered and sincere. As a journalist, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) is flat, though this may be the way the role is written and it’s hard to tell because the journalist behaves less as a journalist and more as a sycophant.
For all the pageantry and re-enactment, the majesty Jackie apparently believes it exhibits only holds if you think celebrity has majesty (it doesn’t), if only for one brief shining moment. Jackie feels, however, like one, long gauzy eternity, at once both fawning and cruel to the woman who later made a career for herself independent of men. When the priest to whom Jackie Kennedy confides finally tells her that one can’t ever really know anything, anyway, and that, upon realizing this truth, most people accept it as true, kill themselves or stop seeking answers, I knew in that instant that this is what Jackie is really made to say. Sadly, it’s all that Jackie‘s made to say.