Jackie: Great Performances and Conflicted Views

JACKIE  (2016)
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Fox Searchlight, 99 minutes, R (language, violent images)

Are you hearing impaired? If so, wait for Jackie to get picked up by Netflix and turn on the subtitles. Natalie Portman has been praised for her performance as Jacquelyn Kennedy and it's clear that she spent time preparing for the role: right down to trying to channel Jackie's affected whispery voice, which is hard on weak ears.

The sound is one of several things that makes Jackie an uneven film rather than triumph it could have been. An awful musical soundtrack also encumbers it. The music, composed by Mica Levi, is overwrought, over loud, and over done. Perhaps Chilean director Pablo Larrín was worried that he might not come across clearly enough in his English-language debut and instructed Levi to telegraph what we were supposed to feel. It's either that, or that Levi is a lousy composer. My third nitpick with the sound is that Portman's accent is inconsistent–not quite Southampton, New York, from which she hailed; not quite the affected tones of the socialite she was raised to be; and not quite the accented Continental French soft vowels she picked up at the Sorbonne. Now and then we also hear echoes of a failed Bostonian accent--for mysterious and nonsensical reasons. (Don't believe reviews pronouncing her accent "perfect.")

Now let's get to the better stuff. This is not a Jackie Kennedy biopic; it centers on a four snippets of her life: a 1962 televised tour of the White House she hosted; the buildup and immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband; her conversation with journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), with whom she spoke in Hyannis Port a week after John Kennedy's funeral; and the 1967 re-internment of two children she lost in 1955 and 1956 (miscarriage and still birth). Ms. Portman is superb in capturing Jackie Kennedy's steely resolve. Portman is especially skillful at both walking and drawing the lines–a woman in deep shock, but also so angry that she wasn't about to change her blood-soaked pink suit for the benefit of appearances. "Let them see what they've done," she icily insists. In similar fashion, she was ready to do her duty, but not to be orchestrated by Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) or Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson (John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant). And he called the shots to White, not vice versa: "Oh, and I don't smoke," she tells him as she puffs her way through the Life Magazine interview. Right after telling him, "You know I'll never let you publish that," when she temporarily loses her cool. We also see her vulnerable side around her children Caroline and John, her wavering faith discussions with Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt), and even a soft side in her affection for her social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). In other words, Portman dances on the lip of an oozing volcano and manages to do so with grace.

Don't be surprised, though, if it's Sarsgaard who carries off an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a few months. He doesn't look much like Bobby Kennedy, but he sure does nail his mannerisms–his fierce loyalty to family, his penchant for insider power games, and even his tendency to bully–as when he orders President Johnson to sit down and announces that he will decide when to inform Jackie of a piece of disturbing news. John Hurt is also terrific in his small pastoral role.

Is this a good film? I suspect I'm in the same boat as anyone old enough to remember Jack and Jackie Kennedy: conflicted. It certainly brought back boyhood memories and trauma. I'm even prepared to say that Portman has done Jackie as well as anyone has done. And yet–she's not Jackie. She's an admirable simulacrum, but an obvious substitute all the same. It raises a question of whether it was necessary to work so hard on Jackie's vocal tones. Why not make it screen friendlier? In the end, Jackie's greatest accomplishment lies in showing her role in cementing the image of the JFK White House as Camelot. White complained at the time that the metaphor was overdrawn. Guess who got the last word? That part rings very true. Does the rest? Like I said, I'm conflicted. But this also makes me think I'm in the presence of a so-so film, not a great one. Great movies are transcendent; they don't invite questions such as mine.

Rob Weir

No comments: