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You Don’t Know “Jackie”

December 5, 2016

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If director Pablo Larrain’s aim with Jackie was to make a film as cold, remote and aloof as Jacqueline Kennedy’s public image, then he succeeded. If he was trying to give moviegoers even a glimpse beneath that black veil she so famously wore to her husband’s funeral in 1963, however, he failed miserably. I tend to believe he was going for the latter.

What the Chilean filmmaker presents is a First Lady on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The script, by Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner), skips around among several time frames: Jackie (Natalie Portman) leading a CBS crew on her celebrated Tour of the White House on Valentine’s Day 1962; in Dallas, airborne and D.C. on the day of her husband’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963; planning his funeral; confessing to a priest (John Hurt) at the cemetery; and conducting a post-mortem interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup). You can see Portman straining to nail every syllable of Jackie’s breathy cadence, but you never sense a heartbeat beneath the facade.

Strangely isolated after JFK’s death, she pops pills, guzzles wine and puffs on cigarettes incessantly. “I don’t smoke,” she lies to the journalist, who may remain unnamed because he seems to be the world’s worst reporter, asking impolitic questions, then agreeing to let the former First Lady edit his story before publication.

No Kennedy cliché goes unturned in Jackie. There are copious references to Camelot, allusions to Jack’s infidelities (Jackie believes his “crude” friends lead him on, but he always comes home to her), and sentimental scenes of Caroline and John-John all dolled up for their father’s funeral. The result is wet kitsch more suited to a telenovela than the would-be Oscar contender this film was clearly designed to be. And do we really need to see another painstaking recreation of that deadly day in Dealey Plaza? Weren’t the Zapruder and Oliver Stone films enough?

There’s a serious tonal dissonance to Jackie, and I’m not just talking about Mica Levi’s distractingly discordant score. Portman goes all in with a Jackie impersonation, while her co-stars — most notably a miscast Peter Sarsgaard as Robert F. Kennedy — take a more impressionistic approach to their characters. Caspar Phillipson, the Danish actor cast as JFK, barely has to speak but at least looks the part. The same cannot be said for John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, but tackling that role is a thankless task for any actor in the wake of Bryan Cranston’s devastatingly accurate take on the Texan in All the Way  (we’ll see how Woody Harrelson does in Rob Reiner’s LBJ biopic next year).

Richard E. Grant and Max Casella pass muster as staffers Bill Walton and Jack Valenti, mostly because the general public isn’t so familiar with their mannerisms, but Greta Gerwig seems anachronistic as social secretary Nancy Tuckerman. She’s a thoroughly modern actress who doesn’t fit in period pieces; perhaps she’ll prove me wrong in the upcoming 20th Century Women.

The only cast member who truly shines is John Hurt as the unnamed priest. His visage ravaged by time and a recent bout with pancreatic cancer, the 76-year-old Brit — the son of an Anglican clergyman — finds humanity underneath his vestments. His scenes with Portman are the only ones in which Mrs. Kennedy seems to come alive. The rest of Jackie, alas, just feels like character assassination.

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