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Jackie

What is the first lady? It’s a surprisingly difficult question. I mean, of course she’s the wife of the president, but what does it mean to hold the office of first lady? Trick question — there’s no such office.

As a fellow resident of the White House, and probably the closest confidante of the most powerful man in the nation, the first lady holds considerable power and status, but none defined in our constitution. Her role has mostly been defined by tradition, but even that’s been up to interpretation over the years.

But here’s a thornier question: What’s a first lady without a president?

Jackie is a biopic about Jackie Onassis Kennedy (here portrayed by Natalie Portman), unquestionably one of the most influential and iconic first ladies in our nation’s history. While the film briefly flashes between different points in time, the vast majority of the movie focuses on those few traumatic days between the shooting and burial of JFK (Caspar Phillipson). It’s naturally a traumatic time for Jackie, given that her husband quite literally got his head shot off right next to her with no warning. It would be hard enough for anybody to deal with the heartbreaking tragedy of losing her husband and figuring out how to keep on living, to say nothing of how to raise her children alone and explain why Daddy’s never coming home again.

All of that is made astronomically more difficult by the fact that her husband was the president, and also part of a huge political dynasty. The world is watching, rules and decorum must be observed, and safety must be paramount — especially since nobody knew if Oswald was acting alone. The nation’s been turned upside-down, the fallen president’s legacy is at stake, and there’s a widow who’s struggling to find her peace, a new president has to step into place, Jackie’s wealthy and powerful in-laws have their own demands, and all of this has to be balanced somehow.

All throughout the picture, the characters are heavily preoccupied by the notion of history. Take the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example: Will JFK be remembered as the president who narrowly avoided nuclear war, or the man who foolishly made a mistake he had to go and clean up? As for Jackie, she put a clear emphasis on the nation’s history during her famous renovation of the White House. And all throughout the picture, she has to face the possibility that all of her work — and all of the history she brought back — will be undone by future administrations. For that matter, what if anything of the Kennedy family itself will survive future administrations?

All of this is heavy stuff for any human being to consider, but that’s the job. Somehow, those at the top have to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders while dealing with their own private grievances, flaws, and worries. And for better or worse, when all is said and done, they only get four to eight years to leave their mark.

Yet even after that time is past, it’s not like those four to eight years never happened. The president and his family still hold some kind of power, even if it’s nothing inscribed in our constitution or even something that can really be put into words. There’s a powerful kind of history there that follows a person around, and demands a kind of respect. Not unlike being a widow.

I was honestly amazed that this script was written by the same guy who gave us The Maze Runner and Allegiant. It’s hard to believe that such a powerful script with all of these heavy themes could come from someone with such an inane background, but here we are.

Moving on to the star attraction, Natalie Portman’s portrayal took a while to grow on me. At first, it felt like an artifice, not so much a convincing portrayal of the first lady than just another actress begging for Oscar gold. But a few minutes in, it finally dawned on me that Jackie Kennedy herself is deliberately putting on an act. Whether it’s to keep herself and her grief at arm’s length or to put on a smile for the camera, what we’re seeing is only a facade, and Portman plays it unnervingly well.

What makes it even better is that after the assassination happens, the facade slips. That’s when we really see Jackie Kennedy at the depths of her suffering and her most valiant attempts at holding everything together. And man oh man does Portman bring the house down with that material.

Of course it also helps that Portman is surrounded by no shortage of capable supporting actors. Peter Sarsgaard gets the lion’s share of screentime, always close by in the role of Bobby Kennedy. Billy Crudup also appears as an unnamed journalist, acting as a sounding board for Jackie in the week following her husband’s burial. Greta Gerwig (of all people), plays Nancy Tuckerman — a White House secretary here portrayed as one of Jackie’s most trusted friends — and Gerwig shows more dramatic chops than I knew she was even capable of. Even the lesser characters are filled with such tremendously accomplished character actors as Richard E. Grant, John Carroll Lynch, and Beth Grant.

But my personal favorite is the late, great John Hurt, who lends tremendous gravitas and sympathy to the role of Jackie’s preacher. He’s the one who helps Jackie through the spiritual side of mourning, asking what just and loving God would allow this, whether it’s okay that Jackie wishes she had died instead, and so forth. It’s compelling stuff to watch in the hands of these actors, and and beautiful swan song for Hurt.

Alas, it’s such a good thing that the performances drew me in, because the direction always kept me at a distance. The whole film has a distinctly operatic feel, with results that are suitably maudlin and heightened. Something about the editing and the constant use of close-ups felt deliberately artificial and not the least bit immersive. It didn’t help that static shots and handheld camerawork were both used in clumsy ways that always drew attention to themselves. And every time the cello blasted in my ears with that overbearing score, I checked right out.

Jackie was very clearly a vanity project, but at least it had some superbly talented actors at their prime, exploring heavy themes by way of captivating performances. This is a story that absolutely needed to be told, it’s just a damn shame that the filmmakers evidently didn’t trust us to appreciate the stakes at play. The film is at its best when those behind the scenes just get out of the way and let us sympathize with these characters, because every time the filmmakers try to cram it down our throats just how huge and important everything is, the result feels less authentic.

This is definitely a film worth checking out, especially since it picked up some Oscar nominations. (Though some were more well-deserved than others. I get Best Actress and Costume Design, but Best Original Score? Seriously?) Even so, I’m glad that getting around to it took me so long. This wasn’t worth a full-priced ticket.

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