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Nothing about 'Jackie' feels routine

“Jackie” – “The only routine with me is no routine at all.” – Jackie Kennedy

Director Pablo Larrain’s new film about Jacqueline Kennedy, “Jackie”, deliberately strays from routine biopic patterns in a fascinating, almost experimental, look at the former first lady during the days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Leading up to the release of the movie, Larrain said in an interview that he did not wish to tell what happened during those dark, confusing days in November 1963. Instead, he wanted to make a film that allows the audience to feel the results - and share the emotion - of those events with Jackie (Natalie Portman). Based upon the combined strength of the narrative’s organic approach and Portman’s landmark performance, Larrain’s vision is realized.

“Jackie” is one of the best pictures of 2016.

Anchored by and told in retrospect via an interview in Hyannis Port, MA with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) - within a couple or few weeks after JFK’s death - Jackie leads him through that incredibly trying period and, in addition, a brief stop on her famous 1961 network television special, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy”. The interview feels contentious as an emotionally depleted Jackie distrusts the reporter and wonders about his story’s potentially-crooked angle. Kennedy presents a formidable challenge for any potential adversary, and the movie reveals her growth and thickened porcelain skin through the emotional and political battles she endured as the first lady.

Just 31 years old when President Kennedy took office, the winds and weight of the U.S. Presidency pushed and tested Jackie, and Portman delivers a convincing portrayal, by navigating through true events. After her husband his killed, Jackie is seen as isolated - through imaginative camerawork and dramatization - even though she is sometimes surrounded by people.

For instance, while in Dallas, the shock of the shooting sent waves over Jackie, the president’s staff, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and his wife, Lady Bird (Beth Grant), however, the first lady stands alone, while everyone else circles her but keeps a distinct physical and emotional distance. The only form of comfort towards Jackie is a slight touch of the shoulder from LBJ. The moment offers a telling lesson, because she appears to be an outsider, especially after LBJ is sworn in as president, and his staff have seemingly moved on. Whether or not the events occurred in that manner, Larrain and Portman are communicating that Jackie felt isolated.

Other scenes of seclusion also transpire, when Jackie is truly on her own. She grieves her lost husband and the loss of her own figurative life, before and after Nov. 22, 1963. We see a woman with fame thrust upon her, complete with massive, new roles, demanding expectations and the revelations that they were not entirely welcome. What is welcomed, however, is Portman’s cadence, makeup, hair, mannerisms, walk, and energy that seem to channel Jackie. In fact, during some particular spells during the 99-minute runtime, I took a few specific double takes while experiencing Portman’s effective depiction of one of the most revered women of the 20th century. It simply is difficult to take your eyes off Portman, no matter where she appears in the frame. She delivers some mesmeric work here, not only to suitably play well-documented events but to also fill in the blanks during those undocumented ones, based upon the filmmakers’ and Portman’s interpretations.

Do not expect a movie that presents several thoughtful, revealing exchanges with her husband, played by Caspar Phillipson. The Danish actor certainly resembles President Kennedy, but he only appears for a scant, few minutes, and he may have spoken a few words on camera, but perhaps I dreamt it.

Quite appropriately, Larrain sometimes presents “Jackie” in a dream-like state with a mixture of striking imagery and illuminating dialogue. Rather than offer a standard biography, with decades of occurrences that total her environmental DNA as of 1963, “Jackie” opens the White House doors for a limited time and reveals a woman who was far from routine.

(3.5/4 stars)

Image credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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