“Jackie” is compelling despite confusion at its core

 

jackie

 

Grade: B-

Verdict: “Jackie” is worth a watch for Natalie Portman’s stellar performance (and as preparation for awards season), but suffers from a confused structure that detracts from all the feels.

 

I was a little worried walking into “Jackie” despite all the praise it has received. Biopics just never do it for me, with the exception of a few greats. The traps are so obvious— confusion about how to portray a real person characterized “realistically,” the blunders inherent in figuring out how to turn a life story into narrative without being too quick or stretching too thin– but so many biopics still suffer from the same problems (including many of the Oscar Noms of the last few years. Looking at you, “The Imitation Game.”)

“Jackie” thankfully avoids most of these common problems. Much of the film explores one specific moment– arguably the most important moment– in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman). It’s interested in Jackie Post-JFK Assassination, not The Whole Life of Jackie, which gives it nice specificity and focus. We see the days leading up to JFK’s funeral as Jackie navigates her own despair and the chaotic aftermath of an assassination.

Portman’s performance will inevitably boost her career from money-making to acclaim hogging. It’s total perfection to the point that’s kinda creepy, not quite Uncanny Valley but getting there. Her voice, her looks, her movements are all thoroughly Jackie O., and she plays her misery with sophistication.

The breadth of her performance buoys the film’s concerns with the creation of myths. Jackie is obsessed with ensuring JFK’s legacy will be Lincoln-esque, for him to be remembered fondly and often as a great president. She chooses the most picturesque spot in Arlington Cemetary for him, organizes a grand funeral copied from Lincoln’s, admonishes dignitaries too afraid of an assassination to walk in the street behind his casket. The movie loves to hint at this JFK-creation, and it’s a fascinating thing to explore.

Unfortunately both this issue and Portman’s performance are undermined by the confusion of the script. Writer Noah Oppenheim provides plenty of naturalistic dialogue and tense, effective scenes, but we’re constantly pulled out of the arc of the main story by another story: Jackie explaining all of this to a reporter (Billy Crudup).

His article matters in the long run; it’s the set up that’s the problem. Constantly moving us in and out of the good stuff, the real heart, shakes us out of the emotional arc. Paired with some time-jumping and an absurd finale that stuffs a dozen “this is the theme!” lines into twenty minutes, it seems the movie doesn’t trust the audience to put the pieces together, and its insistence on explaining detracts from all the potential feels.

Underneath this obnoxious structure is a movie that tries to say something about how we create myths post-mortem. Sadly it takes a little digging to get to it, making “Jackie” an interesting, if imperfect, addition to this year’s awards season.

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