'Jackie' Captures The Brittle Sadness Of A First Lady In Mourning

Dec 2, 2016
Originally published on December 2, 2016 1:38 pm
Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Although Jackie Kennedy was one of the most photographed celebrities of the last half century, she also was one of the most private. Now a new biopic called "Jackie" takes audiences into the White House in the days following her husband's assassination in Dallas. Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy and the supporting cast includes Peter Sarsgaard as Robert F. Kennedy. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The Jacqueline Kennedy biopic "Jackie" is unusually chilly. I'd even call it funereal. But that's apt since it covers the November 1963 assassination of Jackie's husband, President John F. Kennedy, and its immediate aftermath. "Jackie" is also unusually intimate - all Natalie Portman all the time. It opens in a wintry Hyannis Port, not long after JFK's burial, where Portman's Jackie broods, chain smokes and submits to an interview with an unnamed reporter played by Billy Crudup. The reporter who did that story in real life was Theodore White, most famous for his "Making Of The President" books. And for some inexplicable reason, he's made to seem cold and judgmental - the conversation, which continues throughout the film, testy. It's as if the film is saying there's no human comfort to be had. As Jackie relays her version of events, often adding bluntly that the reporter can't print what she just said, the film moves back and forth in time. First, she's leading the famous televised 1962 White House tour watched by millions. Then she's back from Dallas still wearing the pink Chanel suit splashed with blood. Then she's planning the funeral and having to stand up to members of Lyndon Johnson's staff who think the proposed eight-block open procession is too dangerous. She finally confronts Johnson's special assistant, future Motion Picture Association honcho Jack Valenti, played by Max Casella.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) I've come to discuss tomorrow.

MAX CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) The attorney general relayed to me your desire for a more modest ceremony.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) I've changed my mind.

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) I'm sorry?

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) I said I've changed my mind. We will have a procession, and I will walk to the cathedral with the casket.

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) Well, even if we could resume the arrangements, I'm sure you can understand the Secret Service still has their concerns.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) And President Johnson.

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) President Johnson would like nothing more than to fulfill your wishes, but I have to take into account his safety. The country couldn't endure another blow should anything - that's not to say - if it were up to him, he would do anything that might bring you comfort.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Then who is it up to, Mr. Valenti?

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) Well, as I'm sure you know, tomorrow we're expecting close to a hundred heads of state.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) One hundred three.

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) Yes, I'm sure that's right. And I suspect they'll make all their own decisions.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Based on what?

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) There's a great deal of classified intelligence that I just can't get into. We've intercepted a threat against General De Gaulle from our assets in Geneva. I'm afraid if he refuses to march, others may follow.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) I understand.

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) As I said, Mrs. Kennedy, I wish there were more we could do to accommodate your wishes. I'm terribly sorry.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Don't be. You and the Johnsons have already done so much.

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) Good day, Mrs. Kennedy.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Mr. Valenti, would you mind getting a message to all our funeral guests when they land?

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) Of course.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Inform them that I will walk with Jack tomorrow, alone if necessary. And tell General De Gaulle that if he wishes to ride in an armored car or in a tank, for that matter, I won't blame him. And I'm sure the tens of millions of people watching won't either.

CASELLA: (As Jack Valenti) Why are you doing this, Mrs. Kennedy?

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) I'm just doing my job.

EDELSTEIN: Jackie's insistence on having that funeral procession is the movie's dramatic linchpin and the source of her triumph over condescending men who'd have her ride instead of walk beside her husband's coffin. I have to say, it's an odd kind of triumph, given there might have been danger. At that time, who knew? But here's why it's vital to Jackie. The procession is modeled on Abraham Lincoln's. She wants to show the world that the U.S. has dignity and a sense of history. And she's already beginning to create her husband's legacy. The director of "Jackie" is the Chilean Pablo Larrain, whose film "No" explored, among other things, the uses of state propaganda. Noah Oppenheim's script hits the same themes. Jackie tells the reporter that JFK loved the musical "Camelot" and listened to Richard Burton perform its title song every night. She says the JFK White House should be remembered for its idealism as our "Camelot." And we know that mythology took hold. But does Jackie really believe it or does she just believe that people need myths? About Natalie Portman's voice, it threw me. Then I realized I'd never actually heard the voice of one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Jackie only gave three interviews after the assassination. Most Americans only heard her speak in that White House tour, in which she's charming but also disturbingly robotic with a breathiness reminiscent of, of all people, Marilyn Monroe. Portman has gone vocally for broke, reproducing that high-pitched patrician over-deliberate diction. If you can get past that voice, the performance is gutsy and smart. Portman takes her cues from the line in the script, I lost track somewhere, what was real, what was performance. She shows how Jackie struggled after this monstrous killing, which is finally dramatized up close to wake up from the dream that her life had become. Portman nails the quality that many of Jackie's intimates speak of, a mixture of shyness and slyness. The movie is hard to warm up to but its brittle sadness is evocative and finally, moving. We never really knew Jacqueline Kennedy but now we see more clearly how bereft and bloodied she kept her and America's grace.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.