At one point in the new historical drama Jackie, which defines Jacqueline Kennedy around the pivotal moment of her husband’s assassination, Natalie Portman’s Jackie snaps, “I’m his wife—whatever I am now.” To some extent, the line frames the central question of the movie: what is Jackie, to herself, to the American people of her time, and to history? And what is she “now,” the now of being first lady, the now of being the President’s bloodied widow, and the now of having to rethink herself in public?
These are heady questions for ostensibly basic, biopic-style Oscar bait like Jackie. The not-bad script by Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner) underpins a meditation on image and perception that’s often witty. In the hands of Chilean director Pablo Larrain (after No and Neruda, making his English-language debut), Jackie longs to be more than Portman’s 100-minute Oscar clip, and it sometimes rises to those ambitions. Certainly, the avant garde music by Mica Levi underscores the film’s aspiration to art.
One might also just as well say that Jackie tries too hard. The dramatization of Jackie’s four-day ordeal between J.F.K.’s assassination and his funeral unfolds within a framing story: a coolly controlled Jackie managing Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) through the post-mortem interview she’s granted him for Life magazine. Oppenheim, like his heroine, concerns himself with mythmaking (the notion of the Kennedy White House being “Camelot”), but also finds his wheels spinning the same emotional space for long, turgid stretches.
Portman’s performance is a zero-sum game of the actress coming off as remote and chilly while playing a character who had to be self-defensively remote and chilly. Drawling through it like Jessica Lange and occasionally pausing to pose as a weeping Pietà, Portman conveys her work’s import but falls short of embodying her muse much further than a breathy, drugged demeanor.
Aside from Crudup’s canny journalist, the supporting characters include a sardonic Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), President-in-crisis Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and Jack Valenti (Max Casella)—later the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America—who tries to reign in Jackie’s plans for funeral pomp. But in this portrait film, these are only background colors to Jackie’s central focus.
At minimum, Jackie is what it was hoping it wouldn’t be: the serviceable movie you make about this subject. But it does offer a little bit more, peeking through with an interesting insight every quarter-hour or so. As a piece of media that’s partly about the media and their roles in creating truth, Jackie deserves credit for daring to invite its own criticism, to suggest that it’s subject may be unknowable.