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“Jackie: The First Lady”: Natalie Portman at her best

“Sorry, you know who James Garfield was,” Jackie Kennedy asks her chauffeur timidly, “or William McKinley?” The driver says no. But Abraham Lincoln, he knows him. The first lady thanks politely. She now knows what she needs to know, what to do. Because James A. Garfield and William McKinley were US presidents who were shot in office. Like Abraham Lincoln. And her own husband a few hours ago.

Still in shock, her pink tweed suit smeared with blood, the newly widowed suspects that the decisions she now has to make will determine whether and how the American people will remember John F. Kennedy. These days of decision are the ones that most interest director Pablo Larraín in “Jackie: The First Lady” – now premiering on Arte.

Biopic would be the wrong word for this film about Jacqueline Kennedy, the length of time it covers is simply too short for that. The audience will learn nothing about the childhood of Jacqueline Bouvier, nothing about the sad marriage of Jackie Onassis. Even the turbulent married life with JFK is hardly worth more than a footnote to the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim. It is the days between the murder and the funeral of John F. Kennedy that he focuses on, the days between November 22 and 25, 1963.

The old and the new Jackie Kennedy

To make it clear how much they changed Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), director Pablo Larraín chose two additional fixed points for his splendidly featured film: On the one hand, he embeds the plot in an interview that a reporter (Billy Crudup) did for about a week after the assassination attempt with the widow. The conversation is the occasion to review the dramatic events of the previous days. The talk also comes to a television event from the previous year, which from then on shows the viewer the “old” Jackie Kennedy over and over again: her tour of the White House, which was broadcast on February 14, 1962 by CBS and 50 million Americans in front of the televisions.

The Jackie Kennedy, who gave TV viewers a glimpse into the president’s home at the time, still looked a bit naive and insecure, shyly avoided the camera with her eyes. The contrast to the woman sitting across from a journalist a year and a half later could hardly be greater. Confident, snappy, downright arrogant, she dictates what the reporter can write. This woman knows exactly what she wants – and above all what she doesn’t want. She had to overcome too much resistance in the days before to be able to let someone else take control again.

Cool beauty under great pressure

The constant change between the time levels makes “Jackie” a film that requires a lot of concentration and also a little open-mindedness. However, it also allows Pablo Larraín to show the many different sides of this often portrayed woman, whom one has never come closer to cinematically. Natalie Portman masters the change between those facets, the transition from the “old” to the “new” Jackie with flying colors. It was not for nothing that she was nominated for an Oscar for best leading actress in 2017 for her performance. Her acting and Larraín’s well-thought-out staging empathize the pressure the cool beauty was under after the death of her husband, determined to secure his place in history.

The fact that her own vanity and the development of her own image did not play a negligible role in this should not be concealed. Ultimately, not only the murdered Presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley fell into oblivion – but also their wives Lucretia Garfield and Ida McKinley.

“Jackie: The First Lady” will be on Arte on Sunday, April 25th at 8:15 pm.



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