THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Jackie Kennedy slowly removes the stained clothing. The pink suit that both she and her husband loved is now ruined. She goes into the shower, turns on the water, and washes his blood off her body. This is a moment in a film, but also something Mrs. Kennedy did in real life. It's not necessarily what we think about when we recall the assassination of JFK. We think about her horror in the back of that limo as she realized he'd been shot. We think of her holding his head, which had been partially blown out by a bullet, in her lap as the limo sped off. We probably don't think of the more personal moments, though. Pablo Larrain's Jackie does, and for that reason, it is a profoundly haunting and powerful film that examines grief in its most raw form.
The framing device involves Jackie (Natalie Portman) granting an interview to a journalist (Billy Crudup). She's open about her desire to shape the story he is going to write. He asks pointed questions anyway, which spur her memories of what she's been through. Via flashbacks, we watch Jackie conduct her famous televised tour of the White House, and then, more pointedly, struggle to come to terms with the events of November 22. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) attempts to offer support while simultaneously wrapping his own head around what happened. They clash a little bit when she insists on having a public procession of JFK's body through the streets of Washington, DC. It seems unsafe to him. To her, it's a mission to show the people responsible “what they've done.”
Jackie is a portrait of a woman whose floor disappears from under her feet. She walks around in a fog, trying to figure out what her husband's murder means for her and their two children. She looks for a way to grieve that can even partially begin to let out the raging anguish inside. The screenplay by Noah Oppenheim focuses on smaller moments more than on big ones. For instance, Jackie walks around the White House, aware that JFK will never sit in the Oval Office or stroll past the Lincoln bedroom ever again. Later, she listens to the Camelot soundtrack because it was one he loved.
Larrain's intimate direction helps to convey – and make palpable – the idea that Jackie is having an existential crisis. One day, she's a wife and a First Lady; the next, she is neither of those things. (LBJ getting sworn in hits her hard.) The film goes deep in exploring how it must feel when your self-definition changes in the blink of an eye, leaving you lost and directionless. Jackie is not about JFK's death, it is about the death of Mrs. Kennedy's identity. With so much ripped away from her, she has to figure out who she can be in the aftermath of this incident.
The approach works because of Natalie Portman's extraordinary performance. Far from doing a mere impersonation, she fully captures the notion of a woman adrift in mourning. The actress shows much of it with her eyes – a difficult feat to accomplish, yet also a devastating one. Because of this, we view Jackie not as the public figure we're all familiar with, but as an individual person facing a tragedy. Portman, like the movie itself, fundamentally changes the way we see this historical figure, forcing us to look well beyond the “iconic” image.
Sarsgaard provides very effective supporting work as Bobby, suggesting that he pushes aside his own grief in order to keep his sister-in-law from falling apart. John Carroll Lynch (as LBJ) and Greta Gerwig (as White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman) are solid, as well. By showing how those around Jackie respond to her sadness, they help deepen the film's impact.
Credit must also go to composer Mica Levi, who creates one of the most mournful scores you will ever hear. The picture opens with a black screen and two sad-sounding musical notes that make your heart sink. From the very first second, Levi's compositions immerse you in melancholy.
Jackie is exceptionally well-made in every regard. The Kennedy assassination is something we all think we know about. There have been plenty of movies related to the subject, meaning that Jackie Kennedy has been portrayed by numerous actresses. But she has never been portrayed the way Portman portrays her, and no film has ever tried to understand her as a lost soul the way this one does. Jackie is the definitive work about her days in the wake of total, unthinkable loss.
( out of four)
Jackie is rated R for brief strong violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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