Natalie Portman is a sorceress. For several seconds, the accent and breathy voice seem ridiculous -- we think, oh God, this is a catastrophe -- and then it clicks. We lock in to her face and her performance. The spell is cast; we're hers.
"Jackie" is a film about a woman asserting the reality of her trauma, her values, and her existence against a world in chaos, against power-obsessed men who want to move on from her and her murdered husband, against doubts that JFK's short presidency (or even her marriage) mattered at all. "We were just the beautiful people," Bobby despairs, seeing no legacy, no mark upon the world. He decries her vanity and says the power was all in vain. But from the first gunshot and blood-splatter in the motorcade Jackie is in the heat of battle, on the front-lines in a war over history itself. And Beauty -- terrible, heartless Beauty -- is her greatest weapon.
Throughout the film we are one with Jackie and her trauma and her doubts and her humanities degree mantras: Tradition; Truth; Beauty; Power. In the most glorious sequence, in one of her last nights in the White House, she plays her dead husband's "Camelot" record -- a shared cultural love that bonded the complicated couple -- and makes one last private White House tour, drinking wine, trying on her dresses, and -- thrillingly -- sitting on the American Throne in the Oval Office. We see a woman, someone others saw as a dress-up doll, with Power, and we see her realize the reality of that Power in the moment. We see her decide, in solitude and silence, to make her mark on history, to become an icon. To create Camelot.
Even with these stakes, one reviewer dismissed this film as a gore-splattered "fashion show." Another called it "Camelot torture porn" and "leaden." What they and others missed was that this was just as much a war movie as Hacksaw Ridge, and a much better one. The fight is for meaning. Jackie's accomplishment of an outdoor funeral procession despite the deadly risks and fierce resistance was an act of insanity. It was also an act of genius. In embodying the tragic sublime in her black veil, in imprinting herself in the depths of American memory -- she wrested momentary control of the awesome catastrophe of history through the mastery of myth. It was a transcendent psychic victory, for her, for women, and for the eternal idea of America.
Because Jackie Kennedy was a sorceress too, using tools others didn't understand to create semiotic order out of the chaos of JFK's spectacle of a presidency and his meaningless murder. In the face of Armageddon, she created Camelot: she enchanted the American Presidency itself. At last, in this film, her achievement receives the royal appreciation it deserves. A cinematic masterpiece, a career-best performance, a crackling first screenplay, a directorial work of postmodern brilliance, an artistic risk nearly as bold as the one it depicts -- this is the film of the year, the greatest biopic since Patton, destined to be mocked and misunderstood but unquestionably one of the finest films about America ever made.
***** Five Stars. Bravo.
Jackie and its deep-digging score had me even before I saw the first image of that terribly dressed journalist stepping out of the cab, broken as his country. And then there's the performance of Natalie Portman, that, surprisingly, lived up to its hype -- as well as a story and camerawork that were suitably torn between the myth they were destroying and falling for at the same time.
Meanwhile, the words of the script lurk in a swamp of sexism and power. And the movie bathes in it, floats on the surface and is yet aware of everything dark and complex underneath.
Start with the poster of the movie: not glorifying Kennedy's pink Dallas dress, but her red White House tour one. From this tension this convention bending biopic generates its energy. It finds strength in elegance, truth in fairy tales, and personal experience in iconographic images. In the end, Jackie is a comment on time and its narratives as well as a decoding process of the same subjects.
5 Stars *****