Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for brief Strong Violence and some Language
Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Beth Grant, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson & John Carroll Lynch
JACKIE was built up as a potential awards contender during last year’s Oscar season and wound up being nominated for three awards (Best Actress, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design). Those three categories seem appropriate for a film that has a great performance and looks good, but boils down to being nothing more than style over substance. Those looking for a straightforward biopic of Jackie Kennedy had best look elsewhere, because director Pablo Larrain treats this film as his own personal art project. Loud classical music and overbearing camera work frequently work against a narrative that weaves together events in Jackie’s life through a non-linear fashion.
JACKIE mostly takes place in the days following JFK’s assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has to battle her grief, break the news to her children, and plan a funeral ceremony that will go down in history. The film frequently cuts to an interview between Jackie and an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) who was loosely based on a LIFE magazine reporter. There are also flashbacks before that terrible day, involving Jackie’s time with her husband and her historic televised tour of the White House.
JACKIE’s best quality is easily Natalie Portman’s performance. If you watch footage and interviews with the real-life Jackie Kennedy, you realize how much Portman nailed the most famous First Lady through her acting. From the shy, yet determined attitude to the soft-spoken, uniquely accented way of talking. Jackie Kennedy had a strange voice and Portman’s voice sounds equally as strange in the same ways. Portman also captures the melancholy sadness of the assassination aftermath that ranges from sobbing as she cleans blood off her face in a mirror to small lines of dialogue as she slowly begins to cope with her loss.
The supporting performances drastically range in quality. Billy Crudup is amusing as the journalist, while Greta Gerwig (as secretary Nancy Tuckerman) and Richard E. Grant (as family friend William Walton) have a few stand-out moments. John Hurt resides over some of the best moments as a priest who consoles Jackie and gives her advice. His last scene with Portman is incredibly powerful, if only of the rest of the film was up to this level of emotional insight. Disappointingly, the usually great Peter Sarsgaard is bland as Bobby Kennedy and his accent frequently fades in and out. Equally as much of a letdown is a well-cast John Carroll Lynch being underused as the newly presidential LBJ.
My initial good will towards this movie started to fade with its messy script. This screenplay is less a biopic and more a collage of moments in Jackie Kennedy’s life. That sounds like it could make for an interesting viewing experience, but it’s frequently botched by jumbled storytelling. This might be a case where showing the events in chronological order would have greatly benefited the narrative. At the very least, JACKIE could have given the viewer complete events out-of-order, instead of frequently editing these events together. This narrative jumps around far too much for its own good and becomes downright tedious at points.
My boredom wasn’t purely the result of a so-so script, because JACKIE is a definite example of style over substance. The score is overbearing to the point where it almost drowns out dialogue and becomes an annoyance. This music seems like a blatant attempt to tell the viewer how to feel because the movie itself couldn’t be bothered to. The cinematography is all over the place as the camera style frequently shifts from scene-to-scene. Some of these moments are more visually interesting than others and a few echoed the close-up effect from haunting Holocaust drama SON OF SAUL. This beautiful camera work becomes overbearing to the point of distracting the viewer from the content of the scenes.
JACKIE has a great performance from Natalie Portman and a handful of great moments, but comes off like a messy piece of experimental filmmaking. A scene in which Jackie verbally destroys pompous Jack Valenti over her funeral plans is more than a little satisfying to watch. Another great scene has Jackie breaking the emotional news of her husband’s death to their children. Scenes like this and a stellar performance of the titular First Lady both make JACKIE worth watching for those who might interested. However, brace yourself for lots of overbearingly pretentious filmmaking techniques and an unfocused screenplay. JACKIE is shameless Oscar bait that has great positives and a draining amount of negatives.