‘Jackie’ remains in thrall to biopic tropes

Despite presidential election results, the continued popularity of college football, and the increased number of couples who call each other “babe,” I see evidence that human evolution is more than a theory. I am part of the first generation not to give a damn about the Kennedys. So repulsed was I by the mythos that it took death for me to reckon with Senator Ted Kennedy’s considerable legislative legacy.

Now comes Pablo Larraín, forcing audiences to deal with the poised, calculated but deeply felt vacuity of JFK’s widow in Jackie. Natalie Portman plays, or, better, imitates the eponymous character. The sentences, with their Mid-Atlantic vowels exhaled in puffs of vodka; the fingering of an ever-present cigarette as if it were scepter; the tension between intimacy and hauteur—Portman gets these right, for what else are acting coaches for? Wary of biopic conventions, the Chilean director aims for a kind of elliptical concision, recounting in flashback the days after JFK’s death in Dallas when the most painful aspect of Jackie’s descent from the throne of American democracy meant making funeral arrangements in the Lyndon Johnson White Office. A nice try, but Jackie is a stilted, stillborn picture—vaporous as a story, arch as a fragmented rendering—made unsteady by its own tremulousness.

Using the (in)famous 1965 Theodore White profile supervised and edited by Kennedy herself as a framing device, Larraín explores the ceremony of grief: how a society woman manipulates the pose for sympathy. “Don’t think for a second I’m going to let you publish that,” Kennedy tells the reporter (Billy Crudup, cheekbones intact) after she has made an inappropriate remark. As Mica Levi’s score saws away, the opposite of Pablo Casals’ sixties chic, Larraín shuffles Our Lady of Pink Sorrow through the familiar tableaux: an unwanted thing, an embarrassment almost, on Air Force One, keeping her savoir-faire in a blood-splattered skirt; huddling with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), who forgives not a single one of LBJ’s trespasses; teaching young Caroline in the rigors of public comportment. The picture’s centerpiece is the funeral arrangements, for the sake of which Jackie rejects the cheapo rituals afforded other presidents in favor of Irish cadets and the Black Watch. Nothing is too good for Jack.

This is well done as far as it goes, and the interruptions in time and space, abetted by the Levi score, create a distancing effect not often employed in biopics; but by dousing the audience in Kennedy’s grief and accepting the mythos under the pretense of criticizing it, Jackie quietly drifts towards genre conventions anyway, which of course spell “Oscar.” The projection of glamor, the most permanent of the aborted Kennedy administration’s achievements, becomes one of Jackie‘s too: the stunning emerald gown worn by Jackie at the Casals concert; the dancing with Jack at an inaugural ball. Earlier this season Larraín, who in 2013’s No showed how strong marketing campaigns steer public opinion, released a picture called Neruda, another oblique quasi-biopic in which the great Chilean poet becomes an example of the theme of the traitor and the hero. A clever and often boisterous picture if not a successful one — Larraín prefers smothering voice-over to elision. Jackie has the rhythms of a thesis project too; it’s all worked out in Larraín’s head, and as usual with such projects the discussion of them has more vigor. It doesn’t recover from the didacticism of the reporter interviews. Mixing the acrid with the melancholic, the film often wants to be a Sirkian examination of artifice but can’t resist luxuriating in the artifice. Watching Jackie, you’d think the Kennedys’ marriage was really a Disney princess dream.

Stumbling through the picture is Portman’s heroine, suffering exquisitely in sensible shoes. Even during the choreographed-to-death televised tour of the White House it’s hard to know how much of Jackie K’s halting delivery and struggles with simple English pronunciations (she says “Welcome to the People’s House” as if reading from an upside down cue card) were an affect, a performance for an audience that the Kennedys figured didn’t mind royalty so long as they were young and elected. “Different” enough for viewers skeptical of another J. Edgar but rooted in a similar pervasive dolor, Jackie is ideal for the awards bait crowd. But I may never forgive it for horrifying a new cohort of Americans with recordings of Camelot.

GRADE: C+

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