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Natalie Portman shines as ‘Jackie’

Pablo Larrain/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Pablo Larrain/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“Jackie” is, among many things, an interesting film. It combines strong storytelling and brilliant artistic performances into one medium. The film, which is centered around an interview the former first lady, Jackie Kennedy, gave for Theodore White (Billy Crudup) of “Life” magazine in 1963, teaches viewers the difference between how actual events transpire and how they are portrayed.

It is through these scenes that we understand Kennedy as deceptive and clever. She understands what White is looking for. He wants the truth in its full form and throughout the film we see  Kennedy pull him in, giving a tell-all of how the events played out in the utmost detail.

Indeed, White understands the totality of it all, while also coming to realize that he won’t be publishing a word of the actual truth, just the manufactured version that Kennedy allows for. “Jackie” is a film that explores power and control following the tragic assassination of an American icon.

Natalie Portman is magnificent in her portrayal. Whether it be her walk, her body language, or the slightest intonations in her voice, Portman captures the essence of Kennedy while also doing justice to both her and her husband’s indelible legacy.

The way most Americans perceived Kennedy prior to the President’s death mirrors the way the film depicts the first lady. As the third youngest first lady in this country’s history, Kennedy was often understood as passive and submissive, the wife who stood on the sidelines and provided cheerful exuberance and elegance.

The same holds true in “Jackie.” In the few scenes that include President Kennedy, the First Lady is very dependent on him, wanting him wherever she is as a crutch. Once Kennedy is killed, the country begins to look at her with nothing but sympathy and pity.

In “Jackie,” such sentiment only amplifies Kennedy’s sense of discomfort and dissatisfaction. In fact, one way to understand the film is to view the assassination as a time when Kennedy showed true courage and leadership in the face of an unimaginable tragedy.

The immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s death along with the lead up to the funeral is juxtaposed with the tour Kennedy gave of the White House to CBS to 80 million people in Feb. 1962, perhaps the first time that Kennedy truly threw herself into the spotlight.

In “Jackie,” the viewers are made to understand how obsessed Kennedy is with her husband’s legacy, and the legacies of presidents past. The televised tour of the White House helps illuminate this reality, and “Jackie” helps personify how important it was for Kennedy to preserve her husband’s mark on America.

The death of President Kennedy marked a turning point for the nation, forever altering the direction it would take. The swearing in of President Johnson provided a solemn reminder about the passing of history. In President Kennedy’s inaugural address, he references the passing of the torch “to a new generation of Americans.” Through “Jackie,” we come to learn that for a brief moment, that torch was passed to Kennedy. As Johnson presided over, and tried to move the nation forward as the 36th president, Kennedy presided over a nation in mourning.

One of the more powerful scenes in the film is when Kennedy needs to explain her husband’s death to their two children, Caroline and John Jr. Instead of saying that he died, she says that he went to go be with his brother Patrick in heaven. Portman’s language and poise during this part of the film are particularly striking. It’s as if the president had to die because he was needed elsewhere. “Jackie” suggests that it is in this way that Kennedy is immortal.

This film also suggests that Kennedy’s internal predicament becomes one that is shared by the entire nation. Ultimately though, the film does Kennedy justice, illuminating how a woman who was dealt an impossible hand dealt with a tragedy that was both personal and national in scope. “Jackie” sheds light on the power of storytelling and how the characters that are created become more important than the people they represent.

Isaac Simon can be reached at ismon@umass.edu.

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