Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain admitted he was initially hesitant in directing Jackie due to lacking any previous personal attachment of the film’s history. Nonetheless, Larrain’s unfamiliarity with Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis lays the foundation for the towering success of this ambitious biopic. Any American director would have imposed some preconceived notion about the 35th First Lady of the United States; it’s likely Jackie Kennedy remains too familiar and influential among her countrymen for an impartial and fresh approach in casting her as a dramatic character with conflicting public and private personas.
Larrain’s previous unfamiliarity allows him to approach his subject matter differently than his audiences’ memory of the Jackie Kennedy so well-known from television and newspapers, instead building a haunting canvas and allows the brilliant Natalie Portman to paint a tragic new portrait of an American president’s widow.
Jackie follows the immediate days before, during, and after that fateful afternoon in Dallas. Told in a series of nonlinear flashbacks between Kennedy and an unnamed journalist (played by Billy Crudup and presumably inspired by Life reporter Theodore H. White), the First Lady shares her experiences around her days of mourning. Familiar historical figures like Robert Kennedy (Peter Sargaard), Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson (John Carrol Lynch and Beth Grant, respectively) make appearances as well as lesser known confidants like her Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and Kennedy family priest Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt). The film eerily recreates the historically iconic images surrounding the Kennedy assassination and yet are presented from a new and unfamiliar perspective.
Few biopics have had more unreliable of a narrator than Mrs. Kennedy in Jackie, and the film emphasizes how traumatically shocking the assassination proved for her. She was not just in shock because her husband died, but how; John F. Kennedy’s skull was blown off, with his flesh, blood, and bone fell into her lap. Additionally, she starts fighting to preserve her and her husband’s reputation and often tells the reporter not to print certain revealing statements. Her shock and pride dual with one another, frequently distorting any true sense of reality. It makes for some fascinating storytelling.
Like the best biopics, Jackie doesn’t read like a laundry-list of its subject’s accomplishments. It shows a specific emotional state of an important person facing grave circumstances which are, frankly, terrifying. Watching this movie is an unpleasant experience, but I mean that as the highest level of compliment. For about 100 minutes, we see a woman completely unraveled. Larrain uses horror movie conventions to illustrate frightening period in American history. The spooky symmetry of its compositions, the slow tracking shots, the brilliantly unnerving musical score, and the blood staining the First Lady body and wardrobe are chilling. I like how Larrain frequently has characters speak directly into the camera. He shoots (in 16mm) both classical Hollywood style and cinema-vertie inspired shots, recreates black and white broadcast television, and even includes actual historical footage. His mixing of visual styles creates an eerie juxtaposition of historical fact and nightmarish landscape described by Kennedy.
As much as Larrain’s mixes his aesthetic approaches based on a fluctuating psyche of the subjective narrator, Portman shows amazing emotional range in an award deserving performance. She finds all the perfect notes to play Kennedy harmoniously with Larrain’s erratic direction and tone. Knowing exactly what each scene means thematically, Portman frequently shifts between the inconsistent personalities of Jackie Kennedy. For example, the film recreates the famous televised White House tour and she is petrified. Jackie pulls off the smile but nervously searches the floor trying to find her mark. I was amazed at how the Kennedys’ young age really made them outsiders in the political community and it was really interesting to watch Portman play that aspect up in her performance.
While consistently maintaining genuine audience interest, the film gets dragged by a few scenes that take place in the third act, burdened with brutally obvious dialogue too clearly explaining the film’s themes. It dampers the subtleness of the rest of the picture.
Still, Jackie is an important American film. It tells us more about Jackie Kennedy than any other portrayal of her thus far, stresses how personal circumstances influence people of power which thus influences the direction of the country, and acts as a reminder America is not advert to real chaos with a bleak uncertain future. Some may dismiss it, prematurely, because it’s a biopic starring Natalie Portman (a big star) that just happens to be released in an Oscar-friendly period, but don’t make this mistake. If anything, it left me curious to see how future film historians will theorize how it reflects 2016 America.