Screeners of Jackie should probably come with a note to Academy voters that simply says, “We all know who’s going to win, right?” Few films have felt like such a blatant awards vehicle, pitching Natalie Portman in a titular role that she seems born to play and putting a competent production team behind her to make it a fair competitor in production and directing categories while likely getting a Best Picture nod along the way. And that’s fine; actor showcases are perfectly serviceable exercises, often acting as biographical portraits of complex historical figures and allowing talented performers to show off just how good they can be. And Jackie is good. I just wish it weren’t so invested in constantly reminding you of that fact.
Portman stars as Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, anachronistically told between an interviewing framing device and the events leading up to the famous JFK funeral procession. As a potent examination of grief, Jackie excels, capturing the First Lady’s shock in graphic detail, which progresses into mourning the life she and John could have had together in the White House, and finally sits as a reflection of what exactly the nation lost in a president that had only just begun to show his potential. This is powerful stuff, especially in light of the recent political climate, and thankfully they chose a talented actress to hang this film on.
Portman not only expertly looks the part of Mrs. Kennedy, but she perfectly captures the breathy vapor of Jackie’s voice, the awkward yet calculated manner Jackie exhibits in archival footage, and the internal strength she was able to wield even when faced with such a crisis of faith. It really is a bravura performance that is entirely deserving of the awards praise it has already begun to receive, so much so that it carries even the film’s more weakly scripted moments, like an alcoholic dress-wearing scene that feels more like it belongs on cable television than on the big screen.
And yet, the film suffers from hanging the entirety of its convictions on the strength of its one central performance. Director Pablo LarraÍn and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine constantly keep Portman in center frame, often in flattering close-up, and it is a remarkable feat for them to keep her as the central focus while still adopting a highly mobile camera and shooting from interesting vantage points. But the technical achievement so heavily highlights the fact that this is a Natalie Portman film that it’s hard to accept the film as more than the artificial career prop that it will inevitably be remembered as. To give LarraÍn the benefit of the doubt, I believe the intent was to highlight Jackie Kennedy rather than Ms. Portman, but by making the central character loom so large, he made the rest of his film feel small.
Still, you could certainly do worse than Jackie as far as biopics are concerned. It’s a highly emotional take on one of the great tragedies of the past sixty years from a perspective that is as little sought as it is well performed here. But, at least as far as I see it, the best films don’t rely entirely on a single performance to achieve greatness, and like Mrs. Kennedy, I’m left wondering what could have been.