Maybe this is what we need, at the tail end of America’s “annus horribilis” — a really good cry.
But “Jackie,” the new bio-pic built around Jacqueline Kennedy’s days of grief, shock and utter horror following the murder of her husband, doesn’t let us off that easily.
Star and certain Oscar nominee Natalie Portman brings everything the First Lady must have felt in those moments, days and months after JFK’s assassination, his shattered head falling into her lap that day in Dallas.
There’s shock — “He had the most wonderful expression on his face.” And revulsion — “There was blood, everywhere. I tried to hold his head together.”
And then there’s the quiet fury of a mousy-voiced “silly debutante” imposing her will on her fiery brother-in-law, Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), the bluff new president, Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch of “Zodiac”) and indeed America. No, she will NOT change her pink Chanel suit, even though it’s covered in blood.
“Let them SEE what they’ve done,” she practically spits at Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant).
Portman lets us feel the way Jackie’s loss utterly empties her life of meaning and purpose. But Chilean director Pablo Larrain (“The Club”) lets little John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg) provide the heart-wrenching release, just as he did back at that state funeral in 1963.
Larrain and screenwriter and “Today” show veteran Noah Oppenheim frame this story in the most blandly conventional way — in the form of an interview with “The Journalist” — Billy Crudup playing someone meant to be Life Magazine’s Theodore White.
But writer, director and cast make the interview a brittle, biting piece of journalistic combat. He is there at her request, so she can “tell her story.” He can sass her, try to bait and joke about her manipulations of her late husband’s image. She’s not having it.
Demure or not, she knows how to put someone in his place. She still has control, final edit, and she’s not above reminding him of that any time something too personal or injurious to her image or her husband’s legacy.
“Don’t think for ONE moment I’m going to let you print that,” she hisses in that regal, dainty whisper of hers.
The film is built around confessions from the interview, and from post-assassination talks with Bobby, her de facto lady-in-waiting (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt).
Jackie, who brought in a historian to help her restore the White House to its historic glory, has the presence of mind to bring him (Richard E. Grant) back when hastily planning a funeral. Don’t think Garfield or McKinley, she says. No, think Lincoln.
The script swallows the “Camelot” myth even as it casts a jaundiced eye on how Jackie cultivated it. And Portman captures the stunning solitude of a woman totally alone with the whole world assaying her grief, threatened from all sides. And she shows the steely resolve of a widow ready to play the widow card as she changes her mind about the scope of the funeral — intimate to epic.
The best of those tussles? With LBJ aide and future Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti — struggling to be tactful, bordering on testy (as indeed LBJ supposedly was), helpless when Jackie defiantly demands a walking procession to the funeral through the gun-filled streets of a nation that just shot her husband with a mail-order rifle. Max Casella ably plays Valenti as wily, determined and every bit as brusque as his boss, but no match for the Widow Kennedy.
I love the way Larrain and his crew mimic grainy video and TV film footage of the era, filling in the background with TV reality as the young Dan Rather tells the nation the latest on the tragedy, Jackie flashes back to her famous White House Restoration tour for TV reporter Charles Collingwood (played by a look-alike, with the real Collingwood’s questions and interjections) and Lee Harvey Oswald is shot on live TV.
Larrain went for a JFK look-alike as the president (Caspar Philipson, too short) and a great actor as his brother (Sarsgaard, too tall and making no effort to match the Kennedy twang).
But the emotional distance and dramatic parameters of the story they chose to tell lift “Jackie” above similar films attempting to capture the tragedy of iconic beauties such as Princess Diana and Grace Kelly.
And Portman, holding the film together with the force of her gaze and the quiet of her whispers, holds us as well. She delivers an impersonation that punches through the cultivated veneer to show a real woman dealing with the unspeakable, struggling every second with the weight of tragedy and the expectations of history as she does. There was steel and calculation behind those sunglasses the world grew to mock, and a grace that went beyond fashion icon, priestess of high culture and the national monument to mourning we wanted her to be.
MPAA Rating:R for brief strong violence and some language
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Richard E. Grant, John Hurt, Max Casella, John Carrol Lynch
Credits:Directed by Pablo Larraín , script by Noah Oppenheim. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:39