“So the epitaph an the Kennedy administration become Camelot. A magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.” One week following the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr., a journalist by the name of Theodore H. White met up with his widow, Jackie Kennedy for an impending article in Life magazine. This article, written at a moment of tremendous American uncertainly, fostered not just an idea of the Kennedys but a framework that would come to represent them, as public servants and as American iconoclasts.
In Pablo Larraín’s exhilarating new film Jackie, snapshots of that interview serve as bookends to his unnerving take of the former First Lady in the days immediately following the death of her husband. While not an uncommon structural device for a biographical film, it’s important to note that Jackie couldn’t be further removed from biopic conventions or norms. The deeply involving, and at times disquieting, power and pull of the movie is in how Larraín, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner) and star Natalie Portman eschew formula and instead tilt inward – often times to a dizzying effect – to deconstruct this most recognizable, if still quite alien, subject. Through this lens, the audience is glimpsed the grace notes of historical reality but as presented through the perspective of eyes wide open and those deeply focused on trying to understand Jackie at an impossible moment.
The movie drifts in and out of the realities that Jackie was instantly faced with – the bureaucracy of a late President’s procession, the quick change in Commander-in-Chiefs, the uncomfortable talk between widow and her young children – for narrative consistency, but Jackie is a sensory experience above anything else and captures grief in ways both bold and astonishing. In some senses, the film feels like it takes place underwater or in a fog; life goes on but only on the periphery. From a visual standpoint, Larraín (with tremendous aid in director of photography Stéphanie Fontaine) never eases off of Jackie, as the camera stays on her, often times to an nearly uncomfortable degree as she attempts public face, we feel like were prying and yet cannot look away. For only in solitary segments, of Jackie alone in the White House listening to records while the vodka and pills do their job, the camera pulls back, expressing her isolation; our sense of uneasy voyeurism lingers.
Chilean director Larraín has previously mined the world of political theater in recent films including his Oscar-nominated No and Neruda (his second film this year), yet in his English-language debut has crafted perhaps the best movie so far in his filmography. As he has in previous films, Larraín has a lot of fun splicing historical footage and recreating others (including a sublime reenactment of her famed ““A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” television appearance), creating a sense of a lived-in geography, but Jackie goes one step further and raises its degree of difficulty as the movie asserts itself formally as a provocative psychodrama. Even as Jackie intermingles from time to time with brother-in-law Bobby (a wonderfully subdued Peter Sarsgaard) or with kindly aide Nancy Tuckerman (warmly played by Greta Gerwig) or seeks solace with the ears of Catholic priest (John Hurt), the film stays situated, unnervingly so, on Jackie’s determination to enshrine her family’s legacy and her stubbornness in refusing to compromise it.
That may sound harsh, and in some respects it is, but Larraín fleshes out many sides of Jackie Kennedy, such that converge on an ultimately humane portrait of a woman. Jackie is presented as intelligent, graceful, poised, ambitious, but perhaps also as intentionally cryptic. For instance, the bookend sequences of her being interviewed – notably Billy Crudup is simply credited as “The Journalist” – Jackie showcases a wit, a tease and knowing sense of manipulation on just how she wants to be covered. She may tell the dark story of carrying her husband’s lifeless body in that Dallas car in heart-wrenching detail, but will never offer it on the record. “Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that,” she bellows. Even in times of tragedy, she was forced to wear many faces.
The effects of this intimate, yet nearly operatic mood piece wouldn’t work in slightest, however, without Portman’s magnificent and commanding lead turn. Jackie is mighty and imposing all around – from Mica Levi’s intoxicating and haunting score, the lush costumes by Madeline Fontaine (pillbox hats included) and fluid editing of Sebastían Sepúlveda – but Portman’s live-wire performance is subtle in its detail and astounding in its depth. Physical and vocal attributes aside (but praise for superior dialect work on a difficult subject), Portman tackles Jackie with an emotionally honest verve that fits perfectly in with the filmmaker’s unconventionally take and presents a studied, but authentically lived-in portrait.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
With strokes both bold and uncompromising, director Pablo Larraín’s masterful staging of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the direct aftermath of her husband’s assassination is a sturdy, surprising and refreshingly singular piece of work. At once an authentic study in grief, an intimate, unsentimental character study of one of the world’s most significant figures and a powerful examination of legacy, ego and pride, Jackie wears as many masks as its subject does designer clothes. Thanks to Larraín’s tough but sensitive direction, spurred by a smart and compact screenplay, a beautifully haunting score, stately crafts and a never-better performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie is one of the best cinematic achievements of the year. The effect is transfixing, illuminating, unmissable.