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Jackie (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 21, 2020



JACKIE (2016)

Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Caspar Phillipson, Sara Verhagen, Hélène Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Sunnie Pelant, Aiden Weinberg and Brody Weinberg.

Screenplay by Noah Oppenheim.

Directed by Pablo Larraín.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  100 minutes.  Rated R.

There is no doubt that Jacqueline Kennedy had one of the most interesting, tragic lives in the 20th century.  The beautiful young wife of arguably the most charismatic and beloved President in US history, role model for a generation, a benefactress of the arts, a smart and savvy business woman, a loving mother and one of the great unofficial ambassadors of an American way.

However, the movie Jackie pretty much boils her entire existence down to one event.

Granted, it is one of the defining historical events of the 1900s, but there was more to the woman than surviving the assassination of her husband on that grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963.

It is an interesting, and slightly disappointing, narrative decision that Jackie pretty much limits its scope to a just few weeks after John F. Kennedy’s death, with a little bit of flashbacks to flesh out the story a bit.

This is particularly disappointing because this is one of the rare times Hollywood has attempted a serious look at the woman.  Normally she is portrayed in pot boilers like the old only slightly-fictionalized The Greek Tycoon, or long-forgotten crappy TV historical dramas like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, A Woman Named Jackie and Killing Kennedy.

Jackie shows us very little of her relationship with her late husband.  Nor does it delve deeply into her relationship with his family.  Other than a slightly patronizing Bobby, none of the Kennedys have significant roles here.  Rose and Ethel are around, basically there to offer sympathy.  Teddy Kennedy doesn’t even have any lines; he simply walks beside her in the funeral procession.

Jackie does not look back at her younger years as a rich debutante in Philadelphia.  There is nothing here about her later career in publishing, nothing about her marriage to millionaire Aristotle Onassis, nothing about the tragic deaths of her brother-in-law or her son (who died a few years after her in a tragic plane crash), nothing about her struggles with cancer.

If you just look at Jackie, the woman is famous for being a widow, which is only a small part of who she was.

However, simply as a long, hard look at how the woman survived one of the most tragic events in American history – how she became the face of grief for a grieving nation – Jackie is mostly very successful.  It is also a rather fascinating look at one of the first attempts, in a new TV world, to tailor the narrative of history in a politically beneficial light.  It is scary to think that the right-minded attempts of the former first lady to be sure that her husband’s legacy was seen in the proper light has eventually been torn apart, mutated and exploited to the point where we now have Donald Trump as President Elect.

Basically, the entirety of Jackie is the recently widowed First Lady telling her story in flashback to two men: a Life magazine reporter (Billy Crudup) trying to get the real story of what the experience was like, and a good-hearted priest (John Hurt) who is trying to help her find some meaning in the tragedy.

Natalie Portman plays the role with a steely determination and a breathy little girl voice that is a bit distracting until you recall that is how Jackie really spoke.  She does capture the voice and mannerisms of the former first lady to a degree that is slightly spooky, though in the tight narrative grip of Jackie, she is only able to show one side of the woman – numbed, bereft, concerned for her husband’s place in history.

The film also takes out certain little (show business) vendettas, particularly vilifying future MPAA president Jack Valenti, who at the time worked for Lyndon Johnson.  (I’m not even saying that Valenti does not deserve the shade being thrown at him, I’m just saying at this point very few people remember him, so why make him such a hissable bad guy?)

Even more disturbing was Peter Sarsgaard’s take on Robert F. Kennedy.  Now, Sarsgaard looks and sounds nothing like RFK, but that is forgivable.  Less forgivable is the way that the film portray’s the President’s brother as patronizing and vaguely sexist.

In fact, the casual sexism of the early 1960s may be the most interesting part of Jackie.  The way men talk around or patronize arguably the most famous, powerful woman in the world, is sad, to say the least.  However Jackie Kennedy quietly, forcefully pushed back to tell the story that needed to be told.  Much like the movie based upon the most horrific couple of weeks in her life.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: December 16, 2016.

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