Unless you're a film buff, chances are you've never heard of Chilean writer-director Pablo Larrain. But if you have, you no doubt know of both his brilliance and his obsession with the grotesque intricacies of politics, particularly how they pertain to his native land, where the likes of Pinochet have left a bloody legacy of murder and oppression. It's a nation that's seen a coup or two; a rapid shift of power, usually precipitated by the threat of assassination.
It's a too familiar acquaintance with fear and death that renders Larrain ideal to helm "Jackie," an oddly shaped biopic recounting our nation's last violent overthrow as seen through the eyes of the person closest to the crime, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Never one to shy away from the shock of sudden, unprovoked brutality, Larrain ("No," "The Club") viscerally puts you in the back of that infamous black limousine as it passes the Texas Book Depository in Dealey Plaza. Blood, bone and brain matter splatter against the screen in horrific detail. At first, I was repulsed, but then I remembered we're seeing what Jackie saw and what it felt like to have your husband's skull explode in your face.
How does anyone process that horror? And how does one do that when you're the most famous woman in the world, "the mother of a nation" whose job it is to make her children, the people of the United States, believe everything is going to be all right? And do it when you're clarity is blanketed by a thick fog of PTSD? Larrain can only imagine what it must have been like to be Jackie Kennedy in the week before and after Thanksgiving 1963. But what he gives us through the conduit of a battered bloodied Natalie Portman -- in a pink pillbox hat and matching Chanel suit -- feels utterly real. Their Jackie is a hero, a diva, a victim and a bright, shining beacon for a nation in shock and in tears. But she's also a mother who became a widow in a split second, a human being whose husband has ceased to be.
Larrain is her groupie, her cheerleader, her advocate as he recreates those final hours of Camelot, the fairytale America heaped upon the first family; the make-believe image Jackie felt responsible to uphold -- and long preserve -- amid her unbearable grief. The trick, and it's a difficult one, is to make us both pity and admire a woman so guarded and aloof. And Larrain succeeds -- to a point. His hindrance is Portman, whose Jackie exists without an inner-life. She's all surface, elegant and dignified, but ultimately vacuous, an impersonation rather than a realization.
Sounding more like John F. Kennedy's other bed partner, Marilyn Monroe, with her breathy whisper of a voice, Portman measures and overanalyzes every line of Noah Oppenheim's jumbled script. Nor does she possess the former first lady's combination of grace and gravitas. She's small, frail and has that deer-in-the-headlights look, as if the enormity of the role is often too much to bear. But then you try playing an icon like Jackie O. or Diana. The mere fact that these people are iconic makes it impossible to do them justice. Portman should have just accepted this and made the role something more of an imaginative creation, like Helen Mirren in "The Queen." She leans too heavily on Larrain to get her through the rough spots. But he can come to her rescue only so much. Portman needed to make the role her own and I can't say that she really ever tries. She's a cypher playing dress-up. There's a great scene near the end when Jackie's limo passes a department store where the windows are filled with mannequins that look and are dressed like her. And that's Portman; all window dressing.
Yet she never gets in the way of Larrain's bigger ideas, which expand far beyond our beloved Jackie. Like the rampant sexism the 34-year-old widow is subjected to when all the president's men try to tell her how to talk, act and behave. Their treatment of her is vile, and that includes her sainted brother-in-law, Bobby Kennedy (a poorly cast Peter Sarsgaard), who claims he wants to protect her, but actually puts Jackie and her kids in danger by withholding information concerning the televised murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.
What really gets to you, though, are the dozens of small moments Larrain lets us eavesdrop on, like when Jackie gently tells Caroline and JFK Jr. their father has gone to heaven to be with Patrick, her infant son who died just weeks earlier after only 36 hours of life. Just long enough "for me to fall in love with him," she laments. Equally moving is a scene in which Jackie walks alone through the White House as her husband's favorite record plays; that, of course, being the soundtrack to "Camelot." But a lot of great little moments don't necessarily add up to a great movie, which is the case here. For one thing, the script by Oppenheim ("The Maze Runner") is all over the place, relying too heavily on flashbacks spun off of an interview Jackie is doing with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port one week after the assassination. For every scene that works, there's one that doesn't. And never does it dare get inside Jackie's head. About as near as we come is in the private conversations she has with her social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (a sensational and unrecognizable Greta Gerwig). No coincidence these are some of the best scenes in the movie.
John Hurt also shines as an old Irish priest Jackie seeks solace from at a moment when she's lost faith and contemplated suicide. He tells her in his sage-like manner that "the darkness may never go away, but it won't always be this heavy." Yeah, right. Did he not remember she's a Kennedy, a clan as rich with money as it is with terrible luck? Like "Camelot," "Jackie" ends hopeful, yet bittersweet, a fractured fairytale with a strong, beautiful princess who's been cruelly robbed of her charming prince; and doomed to never be the same again.
Cast includes Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig, Peter Sarsgaard and John Hurt.
(R for brief strong violence and language.)