Who wants to watch a movie showcasing the very worst impulses of history’s most famous widow?
That’s some movie pitch, right? It’s probably not how “Jackie” came to be, but it captures one of the most bizarre political films in recent memory.
Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy just hours after her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was killed by an assassin’s bullet. It’s arguably the most controversial moment in modern history, spawning any number of movies, books and shows. That’s not to mention the cottage industry of conspiracy theories.
Yet “Jackie” may be the most ill-conceived of any Camelot-inspired product.
It’s torturous to watch, leaden in both pacing and emotional payoff. In short, it’s the longest 95 minutes you’ll spend in a movie house.
Portman is generating awards season buzz as the main character, a woman known for her starring role in “Camelot: The Beltway Production.” The film opens with a stunned Jackie Kennedy processing the death of her husband. Her impeccable outfit is splattered with his blood.
She is numb, and understandably so. And the camera simply won’t leave her. If you think it’s hard watching a woman who just lost her partner … just wait. That’s essentially the whole movie.
We’re then treated to a hoary framing device: a Life journalist (Billy Crudup) interviewing Jackie a few days after the assassination.
That allows us to skip back and forth from the recent past — the deadly motorcade ride — to the immediate hours following the president’s death. We watch Jackie belittle the journalist, obsess over details of her late husband’s funeral and otherwise reveal a shocking pettiness toward the gravity of her situation.
Even Jackie’s vaunted grace is discarded in scene after scene, both before and after the assassination. Portman recreates Jackie Kennedy’s White House TV tour as if she had never appeared in public before.
We’re also supposed to believe Jackie could manipulate the journalist’s story down to striking entire sections out at her whim. Sure, the press covered for the president’s infidelities back then, something which (hopefully) wouldn’t happen today.
Were journalists in the ’60s totally in the administration’s pocket?
Let’s stop to cheer the film’s magnificent production design. It’s flawless, thoroughly taking us back to 1963. The fashions. The hair styles. Even the footage appears gently aged at times, as if film reels from the era had been transported to 2016 with nary a scratch on them. Some stock footage eggs the illusion on, apparently.
To what end, though?
Grab the Kleenex Box(es)
Who wants to watch Portman weep, and stare into space and more often than not flash her extreme privilege? This Jackie is at times as monstrous as Sarah Palin was in HBO’s “Game Change,” but from a wildly different angle.
That Palin was a neurotic mess, a girl-child incapable of having an adult conversation. “Jackie” captures the iconic First Lady as detached, distant and casually cruel.
Mica Levi’s melodramatic score only heightens our suffering.
Portman affects Kennedy’s halting, delicate speech pattern, but it feels like an exquisite charade. That’s never more true than when we see Portman’s Jackie giving the White House tour. Rather that showcase her ease and style, it’s like watching a woman from rural America thrust into the spotlight with only a Miss Manners guide to light her way.
FAST FACT: First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s 1962 White House televised tour drew 80 million viewers.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy, a role given precious little depth. The actor barely bothers to replicate the real Bobby’s thick accent. Why ask Portman to painstakingly recreate Jackie’s affectations and then ignore her brother-in-law’s vocal patterns?
We’re treated to a few moments when the film genuflects toward the Camelot myth. It’s more than jarring after watching Jackie maneuver around the White House, a sour shadow plotting her husband’s legacy. You’d think she’d spend more time with her young children, although a brief sequence where she breaks the news to them is heart-shattering for any parent to watch.
Hollywood will be hard-pressed to spin Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick legacy in a film set for release later this year. It’ll still be hard to top how “Jackie” shatters the Camelot myth during this misbegotten movie.
HiT or Miss: It’s hard to know who will be frustrated more by this grim look at one of America’s darkest hours -- Kennedy devotees or anyone looking for a captivating story.