JACKIE (2016) – Haunting Look Back at JFK Assassination

jackie

JACKIE (2016) is the most haunting film I’ve seen in a while, and Natalie Portman’s extraordinary performance as Jackie Kennedy is a major reason why.

Even before the first camera shot, we hear Mica Levi’s dramatic and unsettling somber music, setting the tone for the entire movie.  Levi wrote a similarly effective score for the underrated Scarlet Johannson science fiction flick UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

A reporter (Billy Crudup) visits Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, shortly after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. He is there to write her story, to give her an opportunity to tell the world what she is thinking and feeling after the horrific events of November 22, 1963.

The interview begins with the reporter commending Mrs. Kennedy for her superior job the year earlier when she took part in a televised tour of the White House for CBS.  The conversation inevitably turns to the day of the assassination, as Jackie recounts what it felt like to be there in that car as her husband was murdered by her side.

The bulk of the story revolves around the aftermath of the assassination, how Jackie wanted JFK to be remembered, and it shows Jackie researching the Lincoln funeral and planning the services for JFK in a similar fashion.  Her idea for a long procession through the streets of Washington, D.C., are met with resistance by the Johnson administration, worried about security, as the feeling at the time was that the world had gone crazy.

JACKIE is a film filled with powerful little moments, from a quick glance by Jackie at LBJ as he is sworn in as President shortly after JFK’s death, to Jackie’s sadness and disillusionment at being asked to quickly move out of the White House because the Johnsons need to move in.

JACKIE belongs to Natalie Portman, and she is the reason to see this movie.  Her performance is so steeped with grief and pain you leave the theater nearly exhausted from the experience.  There are so many moments where she knocks it out of the park.  There is one quick shot in particular where we see her crying uncontrollably as the presidential motorcade races through the streets of Dallas on its way to the hospital where President Kennedy would be pronounced dead on that fateful day of November 22, 1963.  It’s gut-wrenching.

I’ve enjoyed Portman in lots of other movies, but I’ve never seen her as focused and as dominating as she is here in JACKIE.  Her performance as Jackie Kennedy is potent and powerful.

There is a strong supporting cast as well, but you hardly notice them as Portman is so dynamic here.  Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy, and he’s very good.  In fact, some of the better scenes in the film are between Sarsgaard and Portman.  The dynamic between Jackie and Bobby Kennedy is fascinating to watch.  At times, they are united, with Bobby fiercely defending Jackie and the legacy of his brother, but at other times they are at odds, like when Jackie flips out that Bobby kept secret from her the news that Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed, allowing her to take her two children out in public when such an action put them at risk.  Bobby declares that he would never put her and her children at risk, to which she blasts him, blaming both him and her slain husband for thinking they can control the world when obviously they cannot.  Bobby repeats his assertion that he would never put her at risk, and if you know anything about Bobby Kennedy and his sense of family, it’s a statement that rings true.

Sarsgaard has been in tons of movies and plays all sorts of roles.  He just played the villain in the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), he was also in BLACK MASS (2015), and probably my favorite Sarsgaard performance from recent years was his turn as Linda Lovelace’s slimy husband Chuck in LOVELACE (2013).  He’s solid here as Bobby Kennedy.

Billy Crudup is particularly good as the nameless reporter who in addition to writing Jackie’s story often trades barbs with her in the sometimes testy but always respectful interview.  Crudup was similarly memorable in the small role of Boston attorney Eric Macleish in SPOTLIGHT (2015).

Greta Gerwig adds fine support as well as Jackie’s social secretary Nancy Tuckerman, although if you really want to see Gerwig strut her stuff, see the quirky comedy MAGGIE’S PLAN (2015), in which Gerwig really shined.

John Hurt, who just passed away on January 27, 2017, enjoys some fine scenes as the priest who Jackie confides in.

And Caspar Phillipson, with a little help from the right haircut and  the proper clothes, is a dead ringer for JFK.

Chliean director Pablo Larrain has saturated this film with dramatic and melancholy images.  The entire film feels like a funeral.

The assassination sequences are particularly well-done.  Shown in several different flashbacks, often with the camera in close, sometimes at ground level with the racing motorcade, other times in the back seat with Jackie and her mortally wounded husband, these sequences are raw and real.

These scenes borrow heavily from the Zapruder film, that iconic 26 second home movie fortuitously shot by amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder who was just trying to film a home movie of President Kennedy, and instead captured the brutal assassination on film, providing a historic document that otherwise would not exist.  For instance, the image of the President reaching for his throat after being struck by the first bullet, you can’t see that image without thinking of the Zapruder film, and without the Zapruder film, we wouldn’t have that image.

The somber shots of the funeral procession, juxtaposed with earlier shots of the young Kennedy household in the White House, hosting parties which celebrated the arts, and with the young Kennedy children playing in the background, showing a time of unparalleled hope and promise, makes the finality of what happened, of what could have been, all the more disturbing.

For the most part, the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim is very good. It especially captures the point that Jackie through the elaborate funeral procession and through allowing her children to take part, was trying to make, that she wanted to show the world just what the murder of her husband meant, that a father of two young children had been brutally killed, that two young children were now fatherless, and for what?

We learn a lot about Jackie’s motives, which can be summed up by a fierce need to protect and even shape her slain husband’s legacy.  She wanted the world to remember her husband as a great President, as someone who accomplished much in his brief stay in the White House, because she believed he had.   This is in direct contrast to another moment in the film, where we see Bobby Kennedy lamenting that their time had been cut short, that they had so much more they were going to do, and now it was over, and he asks, what have we accomplished?

If there’s a weakness, it’s that the scenes between Jackie and the reporter never evolve into anything more.  I expected more from these scenes, either through the eyes of the reporter or through Jackie herself.  Their conversations remain the same throughout, and after a while their scenes together feel repetitive.

The film clocks in at an efficient 100 minutes, which is a good thing because this one is sad, depressing, and dark.

JACKIE belongs to Natalie Portman, and she is the main reason to see this movie.  It’s an extraordinary performance, one that will move you to tears.

Somber, reverent, and brutal, JACKIE is one of the more haunting movies I’ve seen in a long time.

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