Friday, December 16, 2016

Jackie: A fascinating character portrait undone by directorial excess

Jackie (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and brief strong violence

By Derrick Bang

A few iconic women have become popular staples in Hollywood dramas; consider the number of actresses, over the years, who’ve portrayed Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I and Marilyn Monroe.

Having decided upon a lavish funeral procession that she feels will suitably honor her
late husband, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) suddenly has last-minute doubts,
which she shares with brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard).
And, more recently, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Previous Jackies have been played by Blair Brown, Jacqueline Bisset and Katie Holmes, none of whom comes close to the ferocious intensity and shattered vulnerability depicted here by Natalie Portman. Her performance is so painfully raw that, more than once, we feel like uncomfortable voyeurs, intruding on a grief-stricken woman’s privacy during the worst few days of her life.

Portman’s starring role is by far the best part of Jackie, which marks the mainstream American debut of famed Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. His approach is known to be uncompromising, with a grim, take-no-prisoners approach certain to raise eyebrows ... or, in some cases, unapologetically offend.

Many viewers will feel that he has done the latter here.

Noah Oppenheim’s script is unusual, even challenging, in its depiction of Jackie Kennedy during the turbulent few days immediately following her husband’s death: specifically, from the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, to the massive funeral and procession that took place the following Monday morning. The details in between unfold in a blur of flashbacks and cross-cutting, Larraín and Oppenheim deftly conveying the confusion and shock that followed this national tragedy.

Jackie essentially tells her own story via a series of narrative devices: during a lengthy — and at times quite brittle — interview with a never-named journalist (Billy Crudup), who does his best to suss out the “real” Jackie; during a confessional conversation with a priest (John Hurt) just prior to the state funeral; and during anguished conversations with the only two people she trusts, U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig).

These revelatory exchanges are blended further with re-created clips from the TV special A Tour of the White House, with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, hosted by CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood, and broadcast on Feb. 14, 1962: the first-ever First Lady-led, televised tour of the White House — Jackie recently having renovated and restored the mansion — which was seen by 80 million viewers in 50 countries.

The latter sequences — given fuzzy, black-and-white authenticity by cinematographer Stépane Fontaine — show an entirely different Jackie: nervous, stiff, camera shy but determined to share (and justify) the $2 million spent to bring this presidential palace back to its original luster.

It’s also the narrative touch that establishes the film’s theme. Jackie clearly viewed that TV special as emblematic of her legacy as First Lady, just as she obsesses over details — immediately following the President’s assassination — in order to  properly preserve his legacy.

Because, as she establishes early in the film, nobody remembers U.S. presidents James Garfield or William McKinley for anything beyond their own assassinations ... and Jackie wants to make very sure that her late husband’s heritage doesn’t suffer a similar single-note fate.

Such resolve leads to increasingly angry conversations with Bobby and White House news liaison Jack Valenti (Max Casella), as she gradually formulates plans for a state funeral that would become the largest such gathering of presidents, prime ministers and royalty since the 1910 funeral of Britain’s King Edward VII.

(As history has shown, she needn’t have worried. But nobody could have anticipated, at that time, how Kennedy would be revered today.)

Although demanding careful attention, to know when and where we are in this narrative time stream, these various interludes allow Portman to focus on distinct facets of Jackie’s personality. The exchanges with Crudup are the most fun, Portman’s steely resolve sharply deflecting the journalist’s numerous attempts to penetrate his subject’s reserve, and to persuade her — with limited success — that opening up even a little will make her seem more accessible to his readers.

We feel for Crudup, his expression increasingly resigned as each investigative thrust is met with one of Jackie’s disapproving parries. The dynamic soon resembles that of an authoritarian grade-school teacher frequently forced to reprimand a bright but impertinent student.

In Hurt’s presence, by way of contrast, Portman becomes uncertain, conflicted and riddled with doubt: Who is she, to insist upon so much, during such a crisis? During these exchanges, Jackie’s well-bred, Mid-Atlantic accent becomes even more pronounced (Portman deftly nailing every upper-class syllable).

It’s perhaps ironic that Portman’s most powerful — and heartbreaking — scenes occur in total silence: when she’s able to be alone late at night, in the White House’s cavernous halls and rooms, obsessively and pointlessly changing from one lavish outfit to another, while trying to drown her sorrows in an alcoholic haze. These sequences are heartbreaking, Portman conveying the silent anguish of a woman who — despite fully comprehending that the nation has lost a president — wants everybody to know, as well, that she has lost a beloved husband.

Sarsgaard is similarly strong as Bobby Kennedy, his face a continual display of grief, fatigue and chagrin. We intuitively understand, via Sarsgaard’s richly subtle performance, that Bobby understands what has been lost, in terms of all the populist achievements that, now, never will take place.

Gerwig walks an engaging fine line as Tuckerman: on the one hand appropriately fussy over details, while meticulously crafting Jackie’s public persona; on the other, a warmly sympathetic friend whose selfless behavior arises from genuine devotion. Would that we all could be blessed with a Nancy Tuckerman in our lives.

John Carroll Lynch’s shading of Lyndon B. Johnson isn’t entirely flattering; there’s little doubt that he regards the funeral details — and particularly Jackie’s participation in same — as irritating distractions that are delaying his ascension to the throne. Beth Grant’s beady-eyed Lady Bird Johnson is similarly unsympathetic; alongside Portman’s refined Jackie, both look and behave like boorish hicks.

Richard E. Grant is memorably kind and perceptively sympathetic in his brief appearances as William Walton, the journalist and painter who became one of President Kennedy’s closest friends and confidantes. And, finally, Caspar Phillipson is eerily on target as John F. Kennedy himself.

The production design and set decoration are superb, Jean Rabasse and Véronique Melery placing us inside the White House — and amid the surrounding environs — with a degree of authenticity that feels very much like an updated version of Jackie’s 1962 television special.

Regrettably, all of this behind-the-scenes finery — along with Portman’s masterful performance — are eclipsed, ultimately, by Larraín’s misguided decision to rub our noses in every gory detail of the actual assassination. During these few brief moments, Larraín wallows in a level of unnecessarily exploitative gore-porn unseen since the equally unpalatable flaying sequence in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

The result isn’t merely offensive; it’s shamefully disrespectful. And it distorts the entire film.

The rational is easy to guess: Larraín and Oppenheim felt this was necessary, in order to depict the magnitude of horror that Jackie confronted, on that early afternoon in Dallas. But to resort to such needless excess betrays a lack of trust in Portman’s thespic skill; I’m quite certain she could have conveyed the necessary shock and chagrin all on her own, reacting to something off-camera, and just beyond our vision. The gratuitous overkill is unwarranted.

Larraín’s film succeeds far better during its moments of quiet irony, as with the many times that snatches of the soundtrack album to Broadway’s production of Camelot are heard, with Richard Burton intoning the memorable phrase: “Don’t let it be forgot ... that once there was a spot ... for one, brief, shining moment ... that was known as Camelot.”

A shame, really, for so much fine work to be undone by such a lurid splash of blood, bone and brain matter.

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