Natalie Portman gives an outstanding performance in Jackie, but does the rest of the film live up to it?
On Friday 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot dead. One week later his wife Jackie Kennedy gave an interview to Theodore H. White for Life magazine. This film is the story of that interview.
The interviewer is really only there to be a vessel for Jackie Kennedy to tell her version of what has happened in the previous week. She tells him that she will be editing their conversation as they go along. Although the assassination is shown (be prepared), it is the immediate aftermath that the film focuses on, as Jackie tries to plan a funeral while suffering through her immense loss. We also see the television tour she hosted around the White House, and the links between inviting cameras into her home then, and sharing such a personal moment with the public later.
The TV programme introduces her as Mrs John F. Kennedy, but she is definitely not just her husband’s wife. Natalie Portman gives an absolute powerhouse performance in the lead role. Although her voice (and especially her walk) is spot on, it is more than just an impersonation, or an impression, of a famous icon. This is an insight to one of the most famous incidents in American history. The “everybody remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot” saying became a cliche because it was such a monumental, traumatizing, and painful moment for America, and the world. The Jackie Kennedy we meet here is having to deal with literally being right there. Her recollection of the event is the first time we see the poise of “Jackie Kennedy the public icon” slip. As she wipes her husband’s blood from her face, her make-up comes away as well, and we see the real Jackie. However, she quickly regains her composure, telling Billy Crudup’s journalist that she won’t let him publish any of that information.
And that is what makes this film stand out. There is a great performance by Natalie Portman, but she is also giving a performance of Jackie Kennedy having to act as “Jackie Kennedy”. Kennedy is trying to process a devastating event, and at the same time arrange a funeral not only fitting for the President but also fitting for the iconic image that John F. Kennedy projected. The theme of Camelot is woven into the second half of the film, and her attempt to preserve – or maybe invent – the idea that JFK’s White House was a place of idealism comes more and more into focus.
It is her conversations with John Hurt’s priest that are the most honest about this legacy that we get from Kennedy, and it is the snatches of intimacy between Kennedy and Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) that are reveal most about her fears for her future. These private moments are filmed with the camera almost too close to the action, and it feels that as an audience we are eavesdropping on the characters’ conversations, like this is the only way we get to hear the real thoughts of Kennedy, when it goes through the lens of the conversation with journalist there is an artifice. The artistry of Pablo Larrain’s direction allows the differing levels of intimacy and honesty play out through the story. The phenomenal score from Mica Levi (who also scored the remarkable Under The Skin) also in turns builds and strips away the story.
As I mentioned, Jackie’s work involving the restoration of the White House plays heavily in the first part of the film, and we see Kennedy giving a televised tour of the White House, where she talks about turning it into “the people’s house”. She wants to give what could be a cold building a sense of history and importance by bring back furniture from previous Presidents, and has to give the televised tour to keep the public interest up and show she is not wasting money. What turns this film from straight biopic to something more is that this is a theme that reoccurs later. She has to force a public funeral to make her husband’s legacy mean something. Early on she say the famous line “Let them see what they have done” when talking about the stains on her clothes in the aftermath of the assassination. This is what Jackie does so well, it shows us what she did, to show the world what they (the Kennedys) had done.
Jackie was so much more than just a fashion icon, and Jackie is so much more than just her life story. As a historical biopic it is an interesting insight into the death of one of the most famous figures of the 20th Century, but the film we see is more than that. It is about someone creating the image of one of the most famous figures of the 20th Century.
Go see Jackie for the stand out performance by Natalie Portman. The performance Jackie Kennedy gives will impress you even more.
Until next time, stay gold Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.