Review by Pamela Zoslov
Pablo Larrain Matte, the Chilean film director, was not born until 1976. By his own admission, he had no historical knowledge of the Kennedy assassination when approached to direct JACKIE, a movie about Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of her husband's killing. (Darren Aronofsky and Stephen Spielberg both passed on the job.) The film, which was originally proposed as an HBO series, stars Natalie Portman as the bereaved First Lady. Portman is the latest in a long line of actresses who have portrayed the famous Jackie O — Jacqueline Bisset, Jaclyn Smith, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Blair Brown, Katie Holmes, et al. (not forgetting, of course, the female impersonator Divine in John Waters' 1968 Eat Your Makeup).
The film's premise is an interview of Jackie at Hyannis Port by a journalist, called The Journalist and played by Billy Crudup. He is not William Manchester, the writer who interviewed Jackie at length and published, amid great controversy, The Death of a President, but William H. White, who wrote a Life magazine feature about Jackie.
The famously private Jackie warns the journalist (I mean The Journalist), “You understand, I will be editing this conversation,” a condition the real Jackie, along with her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy, placed on Manchester. Among the things she didn't want revealed: her smoking.
Elegantly puffing cigarettes, she recounts that fateful day in Dallas: the rose bouquet she was given, her husband telling her to remove her sunglasses in the motorcade so people could see her face. And then, the gruesome horror: his blood and brains on her lap, the shattered pieces of his skull, her desperate attempt to put him back together as his head rested across her knees. “His head was so beautiful. His eyes were open. He had a wonderful expression on his face...puzzled. I tried to hold his head together. I knew he was dead.” Blood on her stockings and all over her pink bouclé Chanel suit, which she refused to remove. “Let them see what they've done,” she said.
The film depicts the awkwardness of Jackie's position in the White House, which she is expected to vacate quickly for the incoming Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. The new president and First Lady are already, figuratively speaking, measuring the drapes.
Eleven days after the funeral, Jackie Kennedy went to live at her temporary home in Georgetown. Before leaving, Jackie, ever mindful of history, had a plaque installed in the Lincoln Bedroom that read, poignantly, “In this room lived John Fitzgerald Kennedy, with his wife Jacqueline, during the two years, ten months, and two days he was president of the United States.” (The plaque was later removed by the Nixons — not surprising, since the wealthy, popular JFK was Richard Nixon's lifelong bête noir).
No suggestions are made about assassination conspiracies, but there are vague allusions to JFK's now well-known womanizing: “He was imperfect, but he was perfect for our country,” Jackie says. “He went into the desert to be tempted by the devil, but he always came back to his beloved family.” A devout Catholic, Jackie is shown sharing her religious doubts with a trusted priest (John Hurt, his character listed only as The Priest in this Pilgrim's Progress of a cast list). The Priest provides homilies like “God is love, God is everywhere,” which gives Jackie scant comfort as she contemplates life as the world's most famous widow.
Thinking of her husband's affection for the soundtrack LP from the Lerner and Loewe musical “Camelot,” about the King Arthur legend, Jackie found the perfect symbol for her husband's presidency. Quoting its lines to Theodore White, she created the myth of Camelot. “There will be great presidents again,” she said, “but there will never be another Camelot,” echoing the lines from the musical: “Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
Even with its slavish attention to detail, Jackie has an ersatz quality that's a little embarrassing. Central to this is Portman, who tries mightily but evokes nothing of the rangy gracefulness of the woman Norman Mailer called “the most beautiful woman to ever occupy the White House” Portman is a full four inches shorter than Jackie, and in Jackie's couture suits and dresses, she looks like a 12-year-old girl playing dress-up. (She brings to mind Addison DeWitt's line in All About Eve: "You're too short for that gesture.") No amount of mimicry of of Jackie's whispery Miss Porter's School elocution can convince, for even a moment, that this little girl is Jacqueline Kennedy. To be fair, Portman works hard, and it's not clear there is any actress who could crack Jackie's facade. (Jackie's granddaughter, Rose Schlossberg, said to be the image of Jackie, is an actress — too creepy?)
The script, by Noah Oppenheim, is less interesting than the movie's technical alchemy: the production design, costumes, hair and especially the editing that seamlessly integrates live action and archival film, photographs and sound. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.