Did anybody really know Jackie Kennedy?
The former first lady seemed as enigmatic as she was elegant: a mix of politics, privilege and pop culture, packaged with impeccable etiquette and chic outfits.
“Jackie” provides a genuine opportunity to infiltrate the mind and soul of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the 35th president. But the film instead becomes preoccupied with trendy period detail and the mannered performance of its star, rather than in finding deeper truths about the subject.
Natalie Portman plays the title character. We meet her in the family’s Hyannis Port, Mass., compound mere weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
She greets a Life magazine journalist (Billy Crudup) for an exclusive interview, intending to provide some closure for the grieving nation. But the chain-smoking Kennedy — who reminds the reporter, “Remember, I don’t smoke” — is guarded. Suspicious, even.
“You want me to describe the sound the bullet made when it collided with my husband’s skull?” she pre-emptively asks.
The movie frequently returns to this framing device while jumping around to points before, after and during the tragedy in Dallas.
The most entertaining of these snapshots is a re-creation of “A Tour of the White House.” The 1962 network special showcased the first lady conducting the earliest such televised visit, presented as a prime-time documentary designed to lure female viewers. The awkward staginess of the occasion is a hoot.
The most harrowing sequence — no surprise — is the assassination itself. Director Pablo Larraín (“Neruda”) orchestrates snippets of the event to amplify the horror. The majority of people have witnessed this crime only from the vantage point of the Zapruder film; “Jackie” shoots it from the wife’s perspective. Her panicked “this can’t be happening” feeling gives way to a hyper-awareness of brutal details that cling to the psyche like the blood on her pink Chanel suit.
It’s coupled with Mica Levi’s alarming string score that’s more befitting a hallucinogenic psychological thriller. What a musical counterpoint to the scenes in which Kennedy listens to the hammy “Camelot” cast album in the White House.
Portman already stands as a front-runner for another Oscar to go along with 2011’s “Black Swan.” A quick glance at the real “Tour of the White House” on YouTube reveals how uncanny her physical impression is in terms of the voice and the look. But nothing about this portrayal seems to capture the quality of Jackie herself. Her personality. Her essence.
While Portman always remains watchable, we can see her “acting.”
As least she’s not miscast, per se, in the same way as Peter Sarsgaard. He takes the role of attorney general Bobby Kennedy, brother to the president. The nervy introvert Midwesterner playing the charismatic extrovert New Englander? Ridiculous. This mismatch is compounded by the filmmakers hiring an absolute dead ringer (Caspar Phillipson) to play JFK.
That’s not the only tone-deaf move by Larraín. No real reporter in 1963 would have behaved like Crudup’s unnamed journalist. In one scene, he gives Kennedy approval of every word he’s writing, and in another she actually revises his reporting notes by hand. Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (“Allegiant”) have as much of a handle on journalistic ethics as a Breitbart editor. (For a more realistic depiction of a Life staffer from this era, see Michael Shannon’s photographer in “Loving.”)
Ultimately, “Jackie” comes across as a piece of cinema that reflects the same qualities as its star’s performance. The movie is tantalizing, lovely to behold and yet somehow all wrong.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R for brief strong violence and some language