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Jackie
USA 2016
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Running time 100 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
3.5 stars


Synopsis: After JFK's assassination  newly widowed Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is left reeling with grief. Over the course of the next week she must confront the unimaginable: consoling her two young children, vacating the White House which she so painstakingly restored, and planning her husband's funeral. She quickly realises that what happens in this seven days will determine how history will define her husband's legacy. With the support of her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard) and unwilling to leave it in the hands of newly sworn President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and his wife Ladybird (Beth Grant), Jackie marshals her inestimable will and influence on the Administration so that JFK’s brief time as President will become as significant as any President before or after.

Framed on one hand by an interview at the Kennedy home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts conducted by journalist Theodore H White (Billy Cruddup) whose interview with Jackie Kennedy was published as ‘For President Kennedy: An Epilogue’ in Life Magazine just two weeks after the assassination (you can read it here) and on the other hand by a meticulously recreated black and white television documentary from early in JFK’s Presidency which focuses on her efforts to restore a sense of heritage and tradition to the White House, this is not so much a Jackie Kennedy biopic as it is a fascinating insight into how a public reputation can be deliberately made.

Much, of course, will be made of Portman’s embodiment of Jackie which is certainly a remarkable performance although, for me, it’s a bit too reliant on the hair, the stunning costumes and that accent. What really struck me was that, with more than 50 years of mythology surrounding the JFK assassination, there could still be a new and intriguing story to tell.

Far from the kinds of conspiracy thrillers we’re used to with films like Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) Jackie is a very human story that is steeped in grief and reveals just how much Jackie Kennedy pushed back against the post-assassination fears and panic within the government to create the iconic images we associate with the President’s funeral – the public street-procession of mourners, the riderless horse, John Junior saluting his father, the burial at Arlington – all sourced from Jackie’s reading of history and astute understanding of how and why we remember its great figures.

Chilean director Larrain (2012’s No and the forthcoming Neruda) brings a helpful outside-eye to the telling of this story and, together with screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, they avoid too much of the rah-rah-flag-waving sensibility that films such as these often have. Instead, they zero in on Jackie’s pain and her willingness to assert the same passion and power in laying her husband to rest that we see in her earlier approach to the restoration of the White House. Shortly after the assassination and still wearing the blood-stained twin-set, she asks an ambulance driver if he knows who James Garfield was. Or William McKinley. Or Abraham Lincoln. Of course, he knows the latter, but the other two (also assassinated Presidents) are unknown to him. From that point on, Lincoln’s funeral plans become her inspiration .Much is also made of the title song from the musical ‘Camelot’ which was supposedly JFK’s favourite – ‘don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot’. During the interview, Jackie plays it for White and, of course it makes it into the Life article and becomes part of the legend.

Fascination aside, though, the film suffers a bit from its relentlessly mournful pace and some very odd casting choices. It’s hard not to expect some sort of daffy wisecrack from Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman, the Whitehouse Social Secretary and Saarsgard has become such an internalised, sad-sack of an actor that he doesn’t quite ring true as Bobby Kennedy. But in the end it’s Portman who dominates the film aided by the smart choice to resist making much of Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) who barely has any screen time: a nice departure from the norm.

 

 

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