This review made possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon.
Spoiler warning for 2017: You’re about to go through about a year and a half’s worth of politically-themed film and television releases that are going to feel wistfully out of step because they were designed to be “current” with what everyone assumed was going to be the beginning of the Hillary Clinton administration. See: DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (aka “Aw, Remember White Guy Presidents: The Series”) Lynda Carter’s aggressively pro-immigration lady President on SUPERGIRL and (most imminently) MISS SLOANE, with Jessica Chastain embodying the ultimate ball-busting-Washington-corporatist-as-liberal-superheroine archetype as a near-sociopathic lobbyist who decides to crush The Gun Lobby under her stilletos as a personal challenge. (If only…)
Meanwhile, on the (accidentally) more prescient side, we have JACKIE; in which an iconic First Lady mourns the crib-death of a revolutionary Presidency that almost was as the nation prepares to slide into darkness in the background. Some art is topical, some art has topicality thrust upon it.
Let’s get this part out of the way: Unplanned present-day resonance or not, it’s hard to see JACKIE outside the context of being as naked an Awards Season Vessel as has ever been conceived. Whatever its other qualities, you’ll never quite be able to shake the feeling that what you’re seeing was willed into being through some variation on “Portman can do the voice and looks right in the wig. Write a Jackie Kennedy movie so she can get another Oscar nomination.” (She’s playing Ruth Bader-Ginsberg next, as Hollywood continues working through its apologies for making the instantly-promising actress waste her early 20s in the STAR WARS prequels.)
Structurally, the film is built around providing a gamut of scenarios for Portman to show off how completely she’s embodied the character: Here she is as “Demure On-Camera Jackie.” Here’s “Really Loves Jack Jackie.” Hard-Bitten Post-White House Jackie. Sobbing Wreck Jackie. Saintly Mom Jackie. Don’t-Talk-Down-To-Me Badass Jackie. In the hands of a lesser actress, it’d feel like little more than a historical-impression decathlon with only the faintest suggestion of connective tissue; but the thing about Natalie Portman has always been that she really is as good her hype – this might not be the equal of her turn in BLACK SWAN (what is?) but it’s an electric performance that blazes its way through some of Boomer Nostalgia Cinema’s most familiar thematic and tonal material and elevates what might otherwise have felt like a modestly-unconventional biopic (it feels like my late Grandma pitched a Sundance movie) into something close to special.
Helpfully, the need to provide Portman’s Jackie with dozens of different facets to show off ends up giving the proceedings a rewarding narrative conceit. Set mainly in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination as recalled to a reporter, the plot mainly follows the First Lady as she struggles to keep her composure while jointly planning her husband’s funeral and her family’s exit from the White House itself. During these preparations, the story flashes back to her famous televised tour of the extensive White House renovations she famously oversaw during her brief two years as First Lady; which gives Portman’s turn a chance to be a performance about giving a performance but also allows JACKIE to present the title character in the terms the audience will always best understand her: An avatar of America’s own sense of loss in watching “Camelot” recede.
That “Jackie O” might have been as enraptured by the minutiae of her own Kennedy Mythos as the First Couple’s biggest fans is perhaps the film’s most eyebrow-raising fantasy; but it turns out to be a canny way to cut straight to a genuinely affecting place (it’s also what got me thinking about my Grammy, who like all Northeast Catholics was forever in love with the Kennedy mystique – I think she’d have liked the movie.) Portman’s Mrs. Kennedy is mourning her husband and marriage, sure, but in terms of onscreen narrative she’s sharing America’s collective grief (and, eventually, rage) at being robbed of the Kennedy Administration that was supposed to be – and when juxtaposed with those increasingly ironic flashbacks to how much work and care went into creating the life she now didn’t get to live… yeah, it got to me, shamelessly manipulative or not.
Granted, this is all helped along by the fact that director Pablo Larrain (THE CLUB, NERUDA) and the score by Mica Levi (UNDER THE SKIN) conspire to keep the atmosphere just offbeat and edgy enough to almost make you forget you’re watching a Hollywood biopic. The sound design is unnerving and discomfiting, and Larrain resists the temptation to apply a retro sheen to remind us it’s the early 1960s: The cinematography feels deliberately ultra-contemporary, with a by now ubiquitous digital sheen color-graded to a desaturation point you’d mistake for today if not for the clothes and the cars – oh, and the “soft focus” version probably wouldn’t offer so explicit a rendering of JFK’s blown-open skull, nor had so many lingering shots of Jackie covered in her husband’s blood and brain-matter. Stylistically, it’s a solid series of choices; resisting the visual-coding for “sentiment” where the acting and screenplay will carry the weight.
Amusingly, though, two of the most emotionally-charged moments play out “on paper” like something ripped straight from the Hallmark Channel: Yes, there’s really a scene where Jackie and Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard – Jesus, how have they only made him play a Kennedy once?) literally sit and exchange a somber litany of progressive wish-dreams they won’t get to fulfill themselves (“The space program…” “Civil Rights…”); and a penultimate sequence where Portman wanders an empty, soon-to-be-vacated White House knocking back wine, beaming at the decor and giving her best outfits a last show-off for nobody in particular while blasting the Reprise from CAMELOT (“For one brief shining moment…”) is sincerely gutting in a way no scene thusly described should reasonably be.
JACKIE isn’t one of the year’s best films. It’s an Oscar-moment showcase for Portman and an “Oh! That’s familiar!” historical-tearjerker for grown-ups looking for Holiday movie. But it’s miles better than either such thing needs to be, and if America must continue to mythologize how much it misses The Kennedy’s for a few years longer (at least until it feels appropriate to begin making “I miss the Obama Years” movies) let them all at least be as satisfying as this.
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Bob Chipman also publishes reviews at Geek.com