There's a good movie hiding somewhere in "Jackie," the new film starring Natalie Portman as the grieving Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Glimpses of it can be seen as director Pablo Larrain focuses directly on the first lady's difficulty keeping herself together for her family and country. That film, however, is buried under layers of thematic signposting, of historical figures making grand declarations of great significance in private as if they were speaking in public. What's a more admirable and ambitious biopic in conception still can't escape the genre's rote trappings.
The film is split between two sections, one following Mrs. Kennedy's difficulty in dealing with the funeral arrangements of her husband and president, the other a framing device as she speaks to a journalist (Billy Crudup playing a fictionalized version of Theodore H. White) about preserving her husband's legacy.
On paper, Larrain is the perfect fit for an unconventional biopic, having made several offbeat historical films ("Post Mortem," "No") and biopics ("Neruda") in the past. Larrain seems to take more cues from producer Darren Aronofsky (Portman's "Black Swan" director, who was once slated to direct the film), however, which is effective when dealing with the immediate experience of the assassination and its aftermath.
Scenes of the first lady's in-the-moment reaction to her husband's head exploding, of her reflexively reaching for blood and brain on the back of the vehicle, of her cradling her husband's head and of her wiping blood off of her face in the mirror take familiar images and give them a horrible immediacy that's difficult to shake. There's also a haunted quality to scenes of the grieving widow dazedly walking through the White House as Richard Burton's sonorous voice speak-sings the Kennedy favorite "Camelot."
Larrain can't keep that up for 90 minutes, however, and much of the film takes on an art house 101 aesthetic of Portman's Jackie centered in the screen, the camera pushing in to her face until the close-ups lose their effect and become numbing. Mica Levi ("Under the Skin") contributes a jarring, discordant score of rich texture and emotion, but too often it feels like it's doing the heavy lifting for an otherwise prosaic film.
Much praise has been heaped upon Portman's now Oscar-nominated performance as Jackie Kennedy. It's showy work, nailing the first lady's odd cadences (though her breathy timbre sometimes oddly resembles Marilyn Monroe), but it only scratches Kennedy's surface, rarely rising above the level of impression and giving us an idea of who Kennedy really was. She's not aided by Noah Oppenheim's on-the-nose script, which asks her to spout overwritten banalities about legacy and history ("I believe that the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us"). There's a germ of a fascinating idea of her attempt to define how her husband would be remembered, but it's painted too broadly, with Jackie and Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard in a rare clunker performance) giving thesis statements in place of interactions.
Portman's a bit more effective when paired with quieter actors (Greta Gerwig as her assistant, the late John Hurt as her priest), but the film mostly only gives her one register to play — mannered. For stories about processing the death of a president, the film has nothing on Oliver Stone's historically inaccurate but passionate, pained "JFK." For recent films about grief, it cannot touch "Manchester by the Sea" or "Margaret." It's difficult to match those works' depth of feeling, but in the unenlightening "Jackie," one has trouble even finding signs of life.