The narrative that Natalie Portman has to somehow re-prove herself as an acting force is a strange one. Basically, there’s talk that Jackie (which just had its Toronto International Film Festival debut this week) is her “comeback” of sorts after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress way back for 2010’s Black Swan. (That was sarcasm. It wasn’t that long ago.)
And then I looked at her movies since 2010 and, welllllllll, it’s not the greatest. That list includes two Thor movies (the problem with those is they didn’t give her much to do); the underrated but barely seen Your Highness; starring opposite Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached; and the ill-begotten Jane Got a Gun, which had so many production problems I can’t even begin to list them here and I would for sure read a book about that movie. Natalie Portman doesn’t need a comeback, she just needs a good role in a good movie. That problem has been solved with Jackie.
In Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, Natalie Portman so embodies the role of Jackie Kennedy that there were times I found myself thinking, What’s Jackie Kennedy doing hanging around a contemporary actor from 2016? I could have used a specific co-star in that last sentence, but it would sound like I’m being disparaging to anyone I mentioned. That’s not my point. My point is Portman is just that good. (It’s uncanny at times how much Portman resembles Jackie Kennedy. Portman has a distinct smile and it’s only then when I would think, Oh, yes, that really is Natalie Portman.) I don’t dabble too much into Oscar predictions, but Portman is a lock for a nomination. The only question was if Jackie would be released in 2016. Now that Fox Searchlight has purchased it, that question has been answered by giving it a December release date.
Jackie begins one week after the assassination of President Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy is meeting with a reporter, Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), to tell her story and the film is told in flashbacks that jump around President Kennedy’s short term in office. We watch Jackie Kennedy give a televised tour of the White House, we then see her being rushed to the hospital with her dead husband in her lap. Jackie doesn’t shy away from the events of November 22, 1963. Instead, it shows us a dramatic version of those events quite unlike anything we’ve seen before – namely, from her perspective.
Jackie Kennedy laments that she could have saved her husband. She should have known it was a gunshot. She could have pushed the President out of the way before the fatal strike. We’ve all seen that footage so many times, but she was there. She lived it. There’s a striking image of the fallen President’s car, top still open, speeding down the highway with a secret service agent still riding on the back. What must have other motorists thought was going on? This obviously wasn’t a planned route.
One of the most gripping scenes is when Jackie Kennedy is trying to be convinced to change her bloodied clothes before she gets off of Air Force One back in Washington, D.C. and she refuses. Portman, totally in control, explains she saw wanted posters plastered everywhere with her husband’s picture on it. She wants the people who did that to see what they did. She has nothing to hide. Portman, in turn, with this performance, has nothing to hide either.
I couldn’t help but think a little of The Iron Lady while watching Jackie, both portraits of powerful women telling a story in flashback – a film that won Meryl Streep a much deserved Oscar. The problem is The Iron Lady wasn’t a great movie. There were ghosts involved. Here, though, with Jackie, the film works, while delivering a way for Portman to give one of the best performances of her career, maybe her best performance. But this isn’t a comeback, this is just Portman finally getting the role she deserves.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.