Here are my abbreviated thoughts on Jackie, one of two movies released in 2016 from Chilean director Pablo Larraín:
1. Jackie isn’t that good of a film.
2. Natalie Portman deserved the Best Actress Oscar more than Emma Stone did.
3. And if Portman had won, the Best Picture screw-up would never have happened.
I might also add a 2a, that if this were a better movie she would have won, although I’m not entirely sure of the politics that go into who wins what award. But I do feel pretty strongly about her deserving the nod, even though I sort of argued against her winning when she did win (for Black Swan, beating out Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone). This movie sinks or swims with Portman’s performance, and she commits to it in every possible way, including mimicking Jackie Kennedy’s unique accent and intonation, taking us through the range of emotions that the widow of JFK faced in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s shocking death right next to her. (It’s on amazon and iTunes.)
Loosely based on an interview the former First Lady did with LIFE magazine a week after the murder, Jackie follows her in non-chronological fashion from the motorcade to the funeral, with very occasional flashbacks to prior events. It is a portrait of a woman in totally unexpected grief who also finds herself in front of the nation and yet about to be cast out of the White House with two young children in tow. JFK only appears briefly. No other character gets a fraction of the screen time Portman does. This script is trying to explore the nature of the response one of the most famous women in the world had to having her husband assassinated beside her, especially the public face she gave in the days that followed and in that interview.
That made it all the more shocking to me that the movie is so bland. Portman is superb, but the script itself feels incredibly cold toward its subject. This is a movie about a personal tragedy that was simultaneously a national one, but the script seems to treat it, and Jackie Kennedy’s response to it, as some sort of public policy question. I don’t think Jackie Kennedy comes off well or poorly in the film, but I also think we could have learned a lot more about her character than we did from this script. For example, there are hints of a divide between her and her husband’s family, but those lines are thrown in and never explored any futher. And if the goal was to present her as scheming for trying to ensure that the only major press coverage of her in her widowhood was positive, well, that’s hardly a character flaw.
Portman owns, though. Jackie Kennedy’s weird patrician Long Island accent is tough to listen to, and other than overdoing the breathiness, Portman nails it. She’s also effective at everything she needs to convey through tone, words, and gestures – the grief, the shock, the denial, the attention to trivial details, all come across as incredibly real, and the only emotion anyone shows in this film comes from Portman herself, not from her words but from how she grips and delivers them.
Some of the supporting performances are fine, although they exist in the shadow of the lead. John Hurt, in one of his last filmed performances, is typically wonderful as the Kennedy family priest Jackie consults on the day of the funeral. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Robert F. Kennedy, looking quite a bit like a young Kenneth Branagh, infusing some humanity into the character who is at once grieving for his own loss and providing the only measure of stability for the main character. Billy Beane … er, Crudup is playing an entirely fictional, unnamed reporter, giving some restraint and a little humor to a role that was written a bit too much like a giant blank. I also loved seeing Jack Valenti, who later headed the MPAA for three decades and fought to extend copyright law way beyond what such laws are supposed to protect and encourage, come off as an ambitious, smarmy jackass.
I’m looking forward to seeing Larraín’s other film from 2016, the Spanish-language Neruda, which was Chile’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but didn’t even make the nine-title shortlist. It will be released in digital format later this month.