(This film review of “Jackie” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 19 January 2017.)
Directed by Pablo Larrain; written by Noah Oppenheim; starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt.
Few Americans are held in such mythical regard as Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Kennedy, the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK. Jewish actress Natalie Portman expertly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance in the film “Jackie”, a role that will surely place her in the front row of next month’s Oscars.
Although “Jackie” (the film) lovingly references the stage musical “Camelot” – written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe – a play that operated as an anthem (“one shining moment”) for the short-lived idealistic Kennedy administration, the film holds none of the musical’s romantic optimism. Set primarily in the week following President Kennedy’s death, the film instead is a close study of Jackie Kennedy’s powerful grief, and her determined actions to locate her husband’s place in American historical memory through an unforgettable state funeral that included walking behind a horse-drawn casket. That Natalie Portman makes this personal agony so watchable is a testament to the depth of her towering performance, her excellent co-stars and Chilean director Pablo Larrain, working in English for the first time.
The film uses two techniques to illustrate this tragic moment of American history. First is a re-creation of the events of the assassination and its aftermath, notably with scenes of Jackie cradling President Kennedy’s bloodied head as the car speeds to Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital, both of them shielded by Secret Service agent Clint Hill (David Caves). The film also follows Jackie during the crucial four days following the assassination and planning of JFK’s funeral, in which she took the lead role through force of personality. The other technique – a great achievement by Jewish scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim – involves two confessional talks that Jackie Kennedy had in the days following the tragedy: an interview with historian Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) that resulted in a famous “Life” magazine article, and a counselling session with radical Jesuit priest Richard McSorley (John Hurt). These “reconstructed” private sessions allow the film-makers to reveal Jackie’s most intimate thoughts, giving the film great depth and insight into Jackie’s mind and psyche at the time.
Although “Jackie” can be difficult to watch at times, it is a “must see” for fans of American political history. Each member of the excellent cast plays a real-life figure, including Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard), Jackie’s friend and adviser Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, unrecognisable from her normal carefree thirtysomething post-modern roles), President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), Johnson’s wife “Lady Bird” (Beth Grant), film lobbyist and Johnson adviser Jack Valenti (Max Casella), journalist and Kennedy friend William Walton (Richard E. Grant) and President Kennedy (Caspar Phillpson). The film will withstand repeated viewings so that we can pick out other famous figures who appear, including children John F. Kennedy Junior and Caroline Kennedy, sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother-in-laws Peter Lawford and Sargent Shriver, mother Rose Kennedy, Jackie’s step-father Hugh Auchincloss, Texas Governor John Connally, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and “Washington Post” editor Benjamin Bradlee.
The re-created Washington DC of the period – down to what appears to be the actual location of Kennedy’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery – is also superb.
The film’s January release date in Australia is a virtual tour de force of film marketing (not unlike the release of the 1927 “Jazz Singer”, about the life of Al Jolson, on the night before Kol Nidre): our interest in US “First Ladies” is at an eight year peak, as the world bids goodbye to the much beloved Michelle Obama and gets ready to welcome the still unknown Melania Trump.
Jackie Kennedy’s later years (not covered in this film) also have two fascinating Jewish connections/ She spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Belgium-born Yiddish-speaking Jewish diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman, with whom she was rarely seen in public, but widely acknowledged to be her third great love. Jackie’s daughter Caroline also married a Jewish man (Edwin Schlossberg); she is currently the US Ambassador to Japan. Her brother John Kennedy Junior died in a light plane crash in 1999.