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Natalie Portman Shines In “Jackie” But Little Else

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy

The movie “Jackie” is up for three Oscar awards this Sunday night, including best actress for Natalie Portman who was born in Israel. Portman plays former first lady Jackie Kennedy.

It’s no wonder that the only major awards the movie was nominated for were best actress, music and costume design. These are pretty much the only things memorable about “Jackie.”

Natalie Portman is great, to be sure, but does not succeed at completely redeeming the weak story. It is understandable, though, that she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. In 30 years from now people will likely be talking about Natalie Portman in the way in which they talk about Meryl Streep today.

The screenplay was written by Noah Oppenheim. It is his first original story and feels like a first time effort. Oppenheim previously wrote two action movies based on young adult novels: “Allegiant” and “The Maze Runner.”

“Jackie” was directed by Chilean Pablo Larraín. It is his first major English movie. Larrain’s direction is adequate, but lacks any real flair or original style.

Many were impressed by how the costume designers fitted Natalie Portman with recreations of Jackie Kennedy’s iconic dresses. People believe that it makes “Jackie” special. Unfortunately, it is a paint by numbers piece which feels like it belongs on a basic cable channel like Lifetime which, in fact, will soon air yet another mini-series about Jacqueline Kennedy.

It is not clear why someone thought that the Jacqueline Kennedy story needed to be told yet again. The movie information website IMDB lists no fewer than 15 different movies and television mini-series about either her life alone or as part of the Kennedy clan. She has previously been portrayed by such famous actresses as Jaclyn Smith, Jacqueline Bisset and Katie Holmes.

“Jackie” does not offer us any new insights into the life of the late former first lady. The movie uses the no longer original shtick of not going in chronological order. It centers on only one event in her life – the days after the JFK assassination – as well as a later interview with a fictitious reporter. The interview segments are spread throughout the film and it is not clear why the writer felt that this narrative device aided in the story telling.

The movie is also slow moving. Natalie Portman’s performance, specifically the part depicting how Jacqueline Kennedy deals with having her husband’s blood splattered all over her, is great. But how would any person react after such a traumatic experience? Were Jackie Kennedy’s feelings of shock, loss and grief any different from how anyone would react having just witnessed the brutal murder of a loved one?

“Jackie” does not succeed at making the viewer feel that there is anything special here and only the few Kennedy lovers left in the world would still argue that Jacqueline Kennedy’s behavior after her husband’s murder made her worthy of praise. Maybe what seemed like heroic stoicism at the time was just an example of someone still in denial.

John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, Max Casella, in Jackie

John Carroll Lynch (center) as LBJ, Max Casella (left) as Jack Valenti

The writer here also takes a decidedly negative position on Lyndon Johnson. He made President Johnson seem downright mean for just doing his job. The man became the President of the United States at the very moment when JFK died. Constitutionally in America there can be no grace period, not even when a President dies so suddenly.

Lyndon Johnson is played well by the very much underrated actor John Carroll Lynch. You might remember him from the movie “Fargo” and “The Drew Carey Show.” But he is miscast here.

Bobby Kennedy criticizes LBJ and his people for “rushing” to take over the Oval Office. So what? Bobby was just the attorney general at the time and not even a White House staffer. While JFK let his baby brother serve as his deputy president, RFK had no real authority and was completely in the wrong if he really did act the way portrayed here: like President Johnson had no business assuming the Presidency and taking over the reins of government so quickly.

America is not a monarchy where when a king dies his successor waits a certain amount of time before holding a formal coronation. It is essential that the new President assume authority immediately, especially after an assassination when the public is concerned with who is actually in command of its government.

And about this whole JFK was a saint business, it’s been more than fifty years now since the assassination. Can’t we stop pretending that John and Jacqueline Kennedy were somehow super humans? Can we just acknowledge already that Jackie Kennedy never did anything exceptional except happen to be married to a man who got elected President of the United States?

The history here is far from accurate. At one point while talking about how he fears that LBJ will undo his brother’s policies, Bobby Kennedy says something about how President Johnson will be sure to expand the war in Vietnam. What? Nobody was talking about Vietnam yet in 1963. Only conspiracy nuts like Oliver Stone think that President Kennedy was killed because he opposed the military’s desire to start a full scale war there.

Jackie and Bobby Kennedy in Jackie

Late in the film we are supposed to feel some tension over whether or not Jackie Kennedy will be able to walk in a public funeral procession, instead of being driven to the ceremony. She is told that there are security concerns in the wake of the assassination and that it is preferred that both she and the foreign leaders who came to Washington for the funeral be protected in cars, rather than walk out in the open.

For some reason LBJ aid and later head of the Motion Pictures Association of America Jack Valenti is made out to be the villain here. He is the one who Natalie Portman fights with over whether or not she will be allowed to walk the streets. When told that French President Charles De Gaulle is also concerned about his safety, she tells Valenti that he can ride in a car if he wants but, “I will walk with Jack tomorrow. Alone, if necessary.”

This is actually Jacqueline Kennedy’s big moment in the movie. Did this even happen? If it did, so what? How exactly does this sequence make her out to be such a hero?

“Jackie” was cheap to produce, costing only $9 million according to estimates. And it only brought in $13.5 million at the box office. It was not in wide release and clearly has little box office appeal.

But should you pay to watch “Jackie” when it becomes available for live streaming or rent? Well if you are really interested in such semi-historical docudramas, or just really like Natalie Portman, then yes. Otherwise, wait for when it airs for free on cable or Netflix.

Gil

Gil Tanenbaum made aliyah from New York after he completed college.He Has lived in Israel for over 20 years.He has an MBA from Bar Ilan University and is a contributor for various blogs.

1 Comment

  1. jewmor

    3/1/2017 at 12:57 pm

    I love the movie! Great article. Thanks for sharing.

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