The story of Jackie Kennedy-Onassis (Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert Kennedy, John Carroll Lynch is JFK’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson (Carroll is acceptable but looks nothing like the man), whilst Beth Grant is his wife Lady Bird Johnson.
I can’t say I’m an expert on Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, but all I can say about her portrayal in this 2017 biopic from director Pablo Larrain (his first Hollywood assignment, I believe) and writer Noah Oppenheim (“The Maze Runner”) is that I didn’t believe much of anything here. Very little convinced me, including a miscast Natalie Portman’s Oscar-nominated performance in the title role. And performance is indeed the right word here, because as good as Portman can be sometimes (“Beautiful Girls”, “Heat”, and “Black Swan”), she never once suggests she’s doing anything here except giving a ‘performance’. She’s tried so very hard to nail the accent, the body language, and demeanour of Jackie O, that she forgets to make her flesh-and-blood. Instead, all I saw were the gears turning inside Portman’s head. She also doesn’t look remotely like the woman, far too petite and girlish for one thing. She never looks like anyone other than Natalie Portman. And then there’s the voice. Oh, dear. It’s not that Portman sounds absolutely nothing like Jackie O, it’s more that; a) She’s trying too hard and the work is all over her face and in her voice, and b) She has overegged it to the point where she sounds like a mixture of Jackie O, Marilyn Monroe, and that weird royal-speak Portman affected in “The Phantom Menace”. It sounds far too artificial and forced, and when added to Portman’s interpretation of Jackie O’s mannerisms and facial expressions that seem far more Marilyn Monroe than Jackie O, it’s seriously bizarre and wrong-headed (Combining Jackie O with the woman her husband had a fling with?). Portman’s basically doing an imitation of the woman, which would be fine if she actually got the imitation right. By failing spectacularly (and being miscast in the first place), it’s a very awkward and uncomfortable thing to watch and listen to. I swear Anne Hathaway, Rachael Weisz, or Elizabeth Reaser would’ve been a much easier sell in the role. As is, 10 minutes in and I was already out.
It’s not just Portman I took issue with here, the entire film is surprisingly underwhelming and unengaging. The film paints Jackie as tough and not suffering fools easily, but the wraparound with her and journalist Billy Crudup is cliché and I think the scope of the film probably should’ve been wider. The film is surprisingly rather short, and I don’t think it’s to good effect. I wanted to know who Jackie O was before JFK, and who she was years after JFK’s death. Whilst the film is about Jackie O and is sympathetic to her, it’s really telling the story of how she coped with the death of her husband. It sees her as JFK’s widow, and while JFK is the bigger figure and perhaps even the more interesting figure, it does seem a shame that someone has made a movie about Jackie O and tied her entirely to her husband. She was a person before and after JFK, and that was the stuff I really wanted to know about. What we do get isn’t as interesting, aside from one scene where she gets someone to describe to her what the arrangements were for when Lincoln died. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they start from the assassination (otherwise it’d be all about JFK and his ‘little woman’…and his mistress), but I just wish they hadn’t focussed on such a narrow period, and frankly a not very interesting period. The only interesting thing to me about the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination was the investigation. Jackie O’s story during this period is all predictable, mundane cliché. I mean, why is John Hurt here in a useless part as a priest? What an uninteresting waste of the late actor. Although he’s OK and better than Portman, Peter Sarsgaard is simply not RFK beyond the haircut. He’s also a bit glum, to be honest and has been far better elsewhere. The best performance is actually by Greta Gerwig (who I didn’t even recognise) as Jackie O’s aide Nancy, though the character isn’t given much to do beyond being a confidante and secretary. Beth Grant was born to play Lady Bird Johnson, but sadly gets next to no screen time.
The best thing I can say for this good-looking but unconvincingly performed biopic is that you do ultimately come away with a lot of respect for this amazing, strong woman. She was quite clearly a helluva lady. However the narrow focus is not particularly interesting, and Portman’s performance is every bit a ‘performance’, an unpersuasive act. Very disappointing, Jackie O deserved better than this.