Sunday, January 1, 2017

On the Big Screen: JACKIE (2016)

There are two kinds of women, Jacqueline Kennedy tells her priest (John Hurt) in the Chilean director Pablo Larrain's first U.S. film: those who seek mastery in the world and those who seek it in bed. Since Jackie (Natalie Portman) has just told him that her husband, the late President of the United States, had been sexually estranged from her, sleeping in a separate bed on their last night together, this means that the First Lady, as conceived by Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, has been trying to make her mark not merely in the world, but on history. Jackie is the story of her effort to define John F. Kennedy's presidency immediately after its abrupt, violent termination, and to define her place in a world without JFK. It's told in the now-typical nonlinear manner, framed (but not actually bookended) by a fictionalized version of the post-assassination magazine interview in which she invoked the musical Camelot to define the Kennedy years. This framing device is a weakness of the picture because the interviewer (Billy Crudup) seems much more confrontational than the real man, Theodore H. White, probably was so soon after the national tragedy. It's too blatantly a modern narrative device than effective historical drama, and it's undercut by Jackie being more honestly confessional to the priest. But the interviewer's mention of Jackie's TV tour of the White House allows the staging of extensive reenactments (in mock kinescope) of her performance while establishing the thematic importance of her expensive renovation/restoration of the executive mansion. Denied intimacy by her husband (though they would have a child, who died early, in 1963) and denied the sort of influence First Ladies have enjoyed more recently, Jackie dedicated herself to making the White House a kind of living museum of the Presidency, complete with as many original furnishings as she can recover. The main action of the film, however, is her gradual moving out of the place after her husband's assassination, while she plans his state funeral, first wanting to walk beside the coffin in an epic procession, then chickening out when the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald makes her fear a more extensive murder conspiracy, then changing her mind once more in what we later learn is a kind of death wish, a dare to any hidden killers. She finally achieves something like closure by having their two dead infant children buried with Jack in Arlington and devoting herself to her two living children.

Jackie's end-of-an-era quality certainly will resonate with many viewers as the nation passes from the idealized Obama years to the disreputable-seeming successor administration, and the film itself sharply observes a fateful changing of the guard amid the title character's mourning. The mutual resentment of Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard) crackles whenever we see it, putting added pressure on Jackie as she struggles to come to terms with her trauma. The film's actually at its best when if focuses on her mood swings from dazed mourning to grandiose planning, and the reenactment of the White House special pays off when we see the widowed Jackie wandering through the same rooms, sometimes slightly sozzled, attempting to comprehend the sudden emptiness everywhere -- and when we see her later still packing clothes, artifacts and children's toys into all-too-modest cardboard boxes. Natalie Portman lives up to her awards hype less through her physical impersonation of Jackie -- though in fleeting moments the resemblance, especially in facial expressions, is uncanny -- than through a convincing portrayal of stunned, disoriented grief balanced with an ambitious sense of responsibility for JFK's legacy. I don't know if Portman really benefits from the non-linear presentation, which throws a gruesome recreation of the assassination at us almost at random late in the picture and seems vague until the end about where the priest scenes fit in the chronology. It's still a strong star turn by Portman, and Larrain, who made his name globally with a trilogy of films chronicling the Pinochet years in his home country, does a good job adding a historical gravitas to her storyline. Director and star really click in a scene where Jackie stomps and staggers through Arlington in the rain, her high heels sticking quite spontaneously in the mud, seeking out an appropriate site for her husband's grave. It's a moment when the physicality of Portman's work beyond the actorly impersonation really counts. I can't help thinking that Larrain and Portman might have come up with something even better had they been able to tell Jackie's story in a more straightforward, linear manner. But even if the story structure handicaps them somewhat, they still make Jackie a picture very much worth seeing.

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