Sunday, June 2, 2024



Natalie Portman deserves a lot of credit, and, some would say, an Academy Award, for the hard work she put into doing an imitation of Jacqueline Kennedy during the time of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, funeral, and the immediate aftermath. Miss Portman has the hair, makeup and early 1960s Jackie-esque fashion style down pat. She even strives, with somewhat mixed results, to imitate Mrs. Kennedy's soft, breathy speaking voice. As she is in nearly every scene in the film, her acceptance by audiences is crucial. 

The film begins shortly after the death and burial of JFK with the former First Lady giving an interview in which she attempts to either tell the truth, or fabricate a version, of the events of the assassination and give a summation of her husband's legacy. Her verbal sparring with the journalist (Billy Crudup) is interspersed with her memories of what happened on November 22, 1963, and the terrible days that followed.

Like many contemporary films that deal with historical figures and events, JACKIE does not tell its story in a linear pattern. Director Pablo Larrain jumps back and forth in time, almost scene by scene, showing various events during the years of the Kennedy presidency. One event that is carefully recreated is the tour of the White House conducted in 1961 by Mrs. Kennedy for television. The grainy black & white imagery looks very authentic, and for those of us who remember seeing the actual broadcast, the effort is indeed impressive. I would take issue, however, with the way the film portrays Mrs. Kennedy as somewhat awkward and unsure of herself. That is not how I remember it, and I have a copy of the broadcast that shows her being very gracious and dignified.

The depiction of this televised tour is one example of why I have problems with this film. Many of the characterizations don't ring true for me. My memories get in the way. When JFK was killed, I was twelve years old. Like so many in my generation, the events of that terrible week are ingrained forever in my mind and in my heart. John and Jackie have become almost mythical figures to me. No actors, no matter how talented, could ever convincingly portray them and cause me to care and respond as I still do to the authentic news coverage of those days. When it comes to President Kennedy and his First Lady, I have no objectivity. The sum total of what I believe about them, and what I wish to continue to believe, is contained in the reality TV footage from that historical era.

Jacqueline Kennedy was already a celebrity in her own right while she was in the White House, appearing on the covers of magazines, including movie magazines. As the years went on, and she reinvented herself as Jackie Onassis, her fame was stronger than ever. To me, however, she became less important. It was always nice to see pictures of her and hear the latest gossip, but her relevance was minimal. But when she died so unexpectedly at the age of sixty-four, my feelings about her changed. Suddenly, it was as though Jackie O had never existed. The beautiful lady who had passed away was Jacqueline Kennedy. I remembered how important she had been to my country, and I mourned for her. The rush of sadness I felt for losing her surprised and overwhelmed me.

I went to see JACKIE hoping to be moved by the familiar story and the performance of the leading actress, but I was not. Natalie Portman spends much of her time wandering through beautiful rooms, arrayed in gorgeous clothes, a dazed look on her face. The film does have its moments, however. The recreation of the shooting is very well realized. And there is an extended conversation between Jackie and brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), where the two disagree about plans for the funeral, that comes across with excellent effect. 

The film has many good actors. Beth Grant, always a welcome presence in a movie, is perfectly cast as Lady Bird Johnson, but not much is seen of her. John Hurt is very good as a Catholic priest whom Jackie confides in before her husband's funeral. And Billy Crudup makes the most of his screen time as the journalist. Pablo Larrain is also responsible for directing the 2021 film SPENCER, a decidedly bizarre meditation on the life and trials of Princess Diana.

Many people who see JACKIE will no doubt find it poignant and realistic. And most people will love Natalie Portman's work. As for me, I choose to keep my memories as they are. Truth be told, I can't help it.


  1. I have not seen this, and probably won't, but I totally understand your opinions on it. There's been a lot of historical biography films lately--I think filmmakers and actors feel that they are sure Oscar-bait--but the problem with most of them is that most performers just cannot live up to the major figures that they try to portray. When it gets really bad it comes off as an SNL skit.

    1. Yeah, I don't think most of those bio-pics are very well done. This particular director has an odd approach. I don't know if you happened to see Spencer, but it was a very weird movie. The Elvis bio that came out a year or so ago had some good moments, but the actor didn't bring Elvis to life for me at all. I heard there's going to be one about Marlon Brando. Let's see how badly they mess him up!

  2. I think there's an inevitable generation gap that comes into play when younger filmmakers try to recreate/interpret a past that they never experienced. There's a difference of perception, and on the part of the younger generation, a lack of true passion for the subject, that results in films that seem off to older audiences -- sometimes in ways that are hard to put your finger on, and sometimes glaringly, egregiously off (e.g., attempts to alter the past for contemporary consumption).

  3. Thank you, Brian, for this insightful comment. I think you're 100% correct. This was probably always true regarding biopics about famous people. The difference is that in earlier decades there was a tendency to romanticize someone's life and achievements and portray them in the best light. Nowadays, I think these directors are more inclined to show the darker, more conflicted aspects of famous people's lives and personalities.