Portman Great as ‘Jackie’ but Script Lets Her Down

jackie_2016_filmGreat performance, great real-life story, meh film.

“Jackie” stars Natalie Portman as the titular character of Jackie Kennedy, and follows her retelling of the days after her husband’s assassination in 1963. Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt also star as Pablo Larraín directs.

There are plenty of examples of great actors giving great performances inside films that are not up to their caliber, and thus the flaws of the film are even further exposed. Denzel Washington in “Flight,” Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady,” Bryan Cranston in [insert most any title]. That is the case here with Portman, as her Jackie is an emotional wreck and a seemingly spot-on physical depiction of the real-life First Lady, however the film fails on a narrative front to keep up with her.

The reason this film works at all is Portman. Her quiet, almost bashful Jackie Kennedy is in every scene of the film and is shown at three main sequences: the famous televised White House tour, the events following the assassination and funeral of JFK and telling her story to a reporter a month after the shooting. Each gives Portman almost a different character to play, whether it is tense and cautious, controlling and frantic or calm but not fully collected. Portman has a few “Oscar scenes” although the entire performance itself awards-worthy.

The costumes and makeup are just as great, as Jackie’s wardrobe is spot on and the hairstyles make you feel like you’re in the 1960s. The score by Mica Levi is also memorizing, even if in a few scenes it does get overbearing.

The biggest and most damning problem with “Jackie” is its script, and how director Pablo Larraín handles it. The film was originally conceived, and written as, a TV miniseries, which would have allowed things to be more spread out and breathe. Here, in a 99 minute film, the constantly shifting time periods can get a bit jarring. However that is not the biggest problem; plenty of films have consistently moving narratives and turn out just fine.

The main message of “Jackie,” which it beats over the audiences’ head, is that history often remembers perception over reality, and ironically the film falls victim to that very ideology. We never really get to know Jackie as a person, or see any sort of arc, and nothing feels at stake or at risk. The film begins and ends with Jackie talking to a reporter (a slightly amusing Billy Crudup) about setting up JFK’s funeral and procession as well as their love of the finer things, and it all feels like it is building towards the inevitable assassination. However when we finally do get a glimpse of “the shot,” the one time Portman’s character truly loses all sense of her composure, it is over in a matter of seconds and all feels like a big tease.

“Jackie” is a great looking, great sounding and powerfully acted piece of dramatic cinema. But (arguably) the most important elements of a film are its direction and script, and both falter here. There is no sense of who Jackie Kennedy actually was, and even though the film follows essentially just one week of her life it would have been nice to see something resembling character development or a story that has some sort of payoff (“Steve Jobs” manages to master both those things despite following the character for just three hours of his life). Portman will get her awards and hopefully so do the makeup and music departments, but it’s just a shame one of the most interesting women of the 20th century gets such a skin-deep biopic.

Critics Rating: 5/10

Fox Searchlight

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