Film / Reviews

‘Jackie’: More pomp than circumstance

by Giovanni Fazio

There’s a scene near the end of “Jackie” where the just-widowed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) is talking with her priest (John Hurt) about the meaning of life and asks, somewhat bitterly, “Is that all there is?”

In my head, all I could hear was the jaded cool of 1960s chanteuse Peggy Lee: Is that all there is … to a presidential assassination? “Well, let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is …”

Surely that is a better option than sitting through this turgid piece of “worthy” Oscar-bait by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (“No,” “Neruda”), who serves us close-up after close-up of Portman emoting mightily but with little to no context.

The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy was shocking not merely because it was televised, but also because the youthful president and his elegant wife, on some symbolic level, had come to embody the hopes of generational change, idealism and a different future. Yet Larrain’s film, focused so tightly on Jackie’s emotional mind-set in the few days between JFK’s murder and his funeral, establishes none of that.

“Jackie” is an impersonation in search of a story. Portman’s got that voice, that perfectly coiffed hairdo and that pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat. (Actually, the voice is a little too Marilyn Monroe.) Larrain even re-creates the famous 1963 TV broadcast from inside the White House where Jackie showed off her efforts to renovate the “people’s house.” This is done in such detail that it almost begs the question: Why not use the original?

In a sense, “Jackie” arises more from the contemporary art world’s fascination with re-enactments, things like Marina Abramovic’s “Seven Easy Pieces” or the Jonestown performance at the London ICA. As such, “Jackie” is a movie embracing “performative documentary,” and addressing questions of authenticity, temporality and citation vs. quotation, which is another way of saying it really has nothing to say, lost in the minutiae of re-creation.

Jackie’s husband is killed, she’s traumatized by it but rallies to bury him in a dignified way. So do we all when burying a loved one. Yet the film finds significance in how Jackie ensured her husband’s “legacy” through a calculated display of pomp.

This is essentially asking us to celebrate the birth of spin in modern politics. “Jackie” takes the very postmodern view that perception shapes reality, and that the politics of the Kennedy administration were less important than the optics. Will the casket be closed or not? Will we exit from the front or the rear of the plane? Who’s on the guest list for the burial? Will we have horses? There’s your film.

The movie’s major framing device has Jackie give an interview to a sad-sack reporter played by Billy Crudup. If the real Jackie stood for anything, it was the old stiff upper lip; she went to her grave without ever answering the crass question on every journalist’s lips: How did it feel when your husband’s brains spilled out onto your lap? Thus it feels like a cheap shot when Larrain has Portman do exactly that, especially so when he gratuitously throws in a graphic scene of the headshot.

The film’s most telling moment comes when the reporter, his interview complete, tells Jackie that “decades from now, people will remember your dignity and majesty.” It’s an artless attempt to tell the audience what to feel, but worse still, it takes that word “majesty” and puts it in the mouth of a rumpled working-class Joe Sixpack, with his five o’clock shadow and unbuttoned collar.

The journalist who actually coined that phrase — “Kennedy has given the American people the one thing they have always lacked: majesty” — was Lady Jeanne Campbell, an aristocrat, who wrote for Britain’s conservative Evening Standard, rather like Lady Edith in the fictional “Downton Abbey.” That show’s target market is clearly the same as “Jackie’s”: Americans who wish they had their own royals to genuflect before.