Natalie Portman shines as Jackie O
First Lady a Strong Contender for Classic Status
“Jackie” is a cement mixer of a film. Its cinematic workings churn consistently for a little over two hours, devoid of any traditional cinematic energy.
Rather, it contains a certain amount of intensity with its own style which, like a cement mixer, seems sluggish but necessary in the way it presents themes that can be appreciated for years.
Natalie Portman is this cement-mixer’s driver, the one keeping the film’s scenes absorbing so that it doesn’t solidify into useless rock, but rather something memorable.
Portman is revelatory as the titular former First Lady, as demanding with her performance as her character is written to be. She is in virtually every shot of the film, the camera following her like an obedient disciple, her steely gaze cutting right into our souls.
Speaking of souls, director Pablo Larraín provides the film with one that is surreal and kinetic. This cement mixer may seem slow, but I don’t remember a scene lasting more than a few minutes. Instead, it ping-pongs between Jacqueline Kennedy’s various engagements in the days before and immediately following her husband’s assassination.
A discussion with a priest. An orchestral concert alongside JFK. Funeral arrangements. Taking the American people on a televised trip through the White House as she describes the changes she has made to the décor.
By carefully layering certain portions of these scenes on top of one another – as gravel, sand and water mix to create concrete – the film pieces together the inner workings of Jackie’s mind. It tells a grim story of a public figure much more vulnerable in privacy than she may have come across as being in public, a widow obsessed with ensuring her husband has an important legacy, or any legacy at all.
At the crux of the narrative is an interview between Jackie and a journalist (played by a rather stiff Billy Crudup) that we assume occurs after everything else we see in the film. While these scenes reinforce Jackie’s “my way or the highway” attitude, it also serves as a bit of a distraction.
The dynamic of the discussion between Jackie and the unnamed journalist serves as a way of helping us understand her motivations – as well as offering a standout scene as she describes the horrific assassination of JFK in her own words – but it does so in a way that is overly explicit.
“Jackie” is a heavy, cerebral film. It’s not supposed to be easy to understand; the way in which Portman walks, stares and dresses has as much to say as her dialogue. Multiple viewings are a must, even though this isn’t a film most would be willing to return to immediately. But it’s also about 20 to 25 minutes too long, and omitting the expendable, although helpful, scenes with Crudup’s journalist would make it all a bit easier to absorb.
That’s a small complaint for a movie that is provocative and memorable in its storytelling. Portman is an absolute force, personifying unavoidable despair and the unique predicament Jackie Kennedy was placed into in the days following Nov. 22, 1963.
The way she copes in the face of public pressure is not as much one of perseverance as it is a reminder that not even sleeping in the White House can provide all the answers for our troubles.