Movies

First Lady sings the blues

Natalie Portman plays ‘Jackie’ in historical drama

At one point in the new historical drama “Jackie,” which defines Jacqueline Kennedy around the pivotal moment of her husband’s assassination, Natalie Portman’s Jackie snaps, “I’m his wife -- whatever I am now.” To some extent, the line frames the central question of the movie: What is Jackie to herself, to the American people of her time and to history?

These are heady questions for ostensibly basic, biopic-style Oscar bait like “Jackie.” The not-bad script by Noah Oppenheim (“The Maze Runner”) underpins a meditation on image and perception that’s often witty. In the hands of Chilean director Pablo Larrain (making his English-language debut), “Jackie” longs to be more than Portman’s 100-minute Oscar clip, and it sometimes rises to those ambitions. Certainly, the avant garde music by Mica Levi underscores the film’s aspiration to art.

One might also say that “Jackie” tries too hard. The dramatization of Jackie’s four-day ordeal between J.F.K.’s assassination and his funeral unfolds within a framing story: a coolly controlled Jackie managing Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) through the post-mortem interview she’s granted him for “Life” magazine. Oppenheim, like his heroine, concerns himself with myth making (the notion of the Kennedy White House being “Camelot”), but also finds his wheels spinning the same emotional space for long, turgid stretches.

At minimum, “Jackie” is what it was hoping it wouldn’t be: the serviceable movie you make about this subject. But it does offer a little bit more, peeking through with an interesting insight every quarter-hour or so. As a piece of media that’s partly about the media and its role in creating truth, “Jackie” deserves credit for daring to invite its own criticism, to suggest that it’s subject may be unknowable.

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