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Jackie

Natalie Portman is "Jackie"
Natalie Portman and Caspar Philipson
Directed by Pablo Larrain
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Probably the most famous first lady in the history of the United States, people remember Jacqueline Kennedy for riding next to her dying husband in the most perfect pink dress anyone had ever seen. This image permanently stuck in our head lights Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” is fueled by this incoherent image pink and bloody – the glamour and the grief.
 
Jackie isn’t the story of a murder. It’s the story of a funeral. Still overwhelmed by grief, Mrs. Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman, carefully plans a funeral for the ages, using the power of the image to cement her family legacy. Why she does it is the mystery. Does she act out of duty or vanity? To cauterize the nation’s wounds or to assuage her fears of being forgotten?  
 
The Mrs. Kennedy, both in the film and in real life, created the image and the magic of the White House. She moved into a lifeless mansion. The building had been essentially rebuilt during the Truman Administration. Most of the furniture and decoration came with the Trumans’ Midwestern restraint built in. Kennedy spent a good portion of the term restoring luster to the White House, buying historic furniture, and generally making the surroundings worthy of the leader of the Free World. In 1961, she gave a CBS News tour of the White House watched by 45 million people, an event that Larrain recreates with Portman, both as television and as live action.
 
Jackie centers on the relationships among image, spectacle and power. I haven’t checked, but I assume The New Yorker movie monk Richard Brody is doing cartwheels about the film. The foreground is loaded with one of his favorite themes, a character doing what he would call “building an aesthetic.” 
 
The most comparable film is one that Brody (and I) love, about another free-spending champagne-tastes first lady, Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” Coppola’s queen understands the power of spectacle, mystique and beauty, until it backfires on her (if Jackie Kennedy never quite emerged from her shell of private grief, at least she did so with her head intact.)  
 
For some critics, and perhaps just generally in our can’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover culture, style is at war with substance. Brody has a history of seeing it the other way. For Brody, style is substance, the choices we make in presenting ourselves to the world are some of the most revealing choices we make about ourselves, summing up our character, our values, our desires. That’s why I disagree with so many critics who see the film as examining an exercise in myth-making. The images she tries to craft are revealing of the First Lady making them.
 
From an acting perspective, Portman is powerful, nervous, sad, easily the best we’ve gotten out of her. That said, the character never entirely breaks free from being the themes she represents. She’s somewhat overshadowed by the art direction. The re-creation of the Executive Mansion, presumably on a sound studio in God Knows Where, never leaves you anything but convinced you’re inside the White House of the time.
 
Jackie is emotional, powerful, thoughtful and occasionally lists into grief porn.  It has a set list of buttons to push, and it pushes them, often fairly and well, but sometimes manipulatively. It’s a delicate look at a delicate moment for a delicate person.

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