JACKIE (2016, Pablo Larraín)
As if it weren’t clear from the frustratingly repetitive first 45 minutes, halfway through this dusty, decorative vase of a movie, Jackie Kennedy says “I lost track of what was real, and what was… performance.” The repeated theme Larraín hammers home again and again is that for politicians, especially iconic First Ladies like Jackie, real life becomes about managing image. When she’s just giving a tour through the White House in 1961 (in mock-archival footage that Larraín accurately mimics throughout the movie; you can see it on YouTube to compare how closely he nails it), this is all well and good. But when real life becomes your husband’s brains in your lap, and having to tell your two babies that their father is never coming home again, managing your image and presenting yourself to the public becomes an insufferable pain.
Larraín is right that you can’t separate being a public figure from its representation in the media, so the angle that Jackie is so busy fretting over her image that she lacks the opportunity for spontaneous humanity is a good one. But is it enough to power this entire film? The director showed with the similarly stiff and bloodless NO that he knows how to mimic old videography and place the viewer in a location and time, but that he lacks a sense of cinematic rhythm — his movies don’t move, they lie dormant behind glass boxes (or academy ratio black & white).
Portman’s performance is a love-it-or-hate-it exercise, and I loved it. Her decision to portray Jackie exactly as you see her in old video is a clever exploration of Larraín’s premise: this woman lived from moment to moment with people watching and recording her, so even in private she found it difficult to look and feel candid. And in the rare occasions when she does let a bit of herself come out, to the reporter visiting her shortly after the assassination (played with subtle excellence by Billy Crudup), she makes sure he knows that that’s off the record. It’s showy and studied, but it’s hard to think of an actress doing a better job of portraying the heart of what this movie is about.
Unfortunately Larraín and THE MAZE RUNNER/ALLEGIANT screenwriter Noah Oppenheim don’t fashion a narrative that sustains Portman’s efforts. It goes nowhere fast, and can’t come up with enough different ways to say that public representation matters, or to show the clash between Jackie’s desire to express herself through the funeral arrangements and the government’s need for security. One more fatal flaw in this element is Peter Sarsgaard’s curiously terrible performance as Bobby, a clumsy foil for Jackie’s careful curation of the First Family. Mica Levi’s tremendous score isn’t enough to rescue JACKIE from its fate, like the man whose skull explodes in Dallas, of being unable to finish what it started.