Written by Daniel Simpson
Biopics are the bread and butter of awards season and it’s all too easy to look on them cynically and without excitement. Every so often though one comes along that actually tells a gripping story and explores its content cinematically. Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is such a film. The film begins about a week after the assassination of President Kennedy when a journalist (Billy Crudup) has been sent to interview Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman). This interview will come to serve as a framing device as the film plays in non-chronological order. The bulk of the film centers on Jackie trying to react in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death while also trying to solidify the Kennedy legacy amidst confusion and the opinions of other powerful people like Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Lyndon B. Johnson (John Caroll Lynch). During this time, Jackie also has to process her own grief and does so by trying to raise her children, working with close friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and talking with a priest (John Hurt). Much of this is also intercut with Jackie’s famous “Tour of the White House” made-for-TV special from 1961.
The non-linear structure might be a shock to audiences seeking a more conventional biopic and indeed Jackie is a lot more challenging than it might seem on paper. The film is very interested in exploring the “Camelot” myth associated with Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy and addressing how true this myth really is. In many ways, these themes necessitate the non-linear structure as the inter-cutting of the interview, the “Tour of the White House” special, and Jackie’s decisions regarding JFK’s funeral procession all directly address myth-making and image shaking. In each instance, we see examples of Jackie trying to craft the perception people have of her and her husband and how these perceptions will come to inform the greater legacies of both. These also come to the front in Jackie’s more intimate conversations with people like Nancy or the Priest. In these moments, Jackie is at her most vulnerable and possibly her most honest. In these scenes we see some of her facade slip away, but we also see strong moral conviction and a genuine sense of loss which suggests there might well be a lot of truth to the Camelot myth. The last part of that statement can be applied to the film as a whole. While it is clear that Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim are interested in exploring the truth of the Camelot myth, they aren’t out to expose it.
On a simpler level, Jackie also functions brilliantly as a character study wherein a woman copes with personal loss while also navigating the tremendous social and political responsibilities that come with being married to the president. Throughout the film, we see Jackie’s tremendous strength and intelligence as she fights to make sure her husband is remembered properly, but we also see a woman in the depths of grief struggling to make sense of her life and what is to come. That Natalie Portman is able to juggle these emotional complexities while also frequently putting on a bit of a face in order to be more likable to the general public is quite frankly amazing. There is tremendous range to Portman’s work here which is highly impressive. On top of that, her emulation of the real Jackie Kennedy is pretty damn strong.
There are a lot of levels to Jackie and the film does challenge some of the assumptions often made about the Kennedy family. In spite of this, the movie never feels like work and is indeed a very fun watch. What perhaps stands out most is the editing, which does a great job navigating the various subplots as well as the blending of archival footage with newly shot material. The film also features a really unique score from Mica Levi (who previously scored Under the Skin). The music is big, powerful and does a great job emphasizing the sorrow Jackie is experiencing. The film’s cinematography is also quite strong, at times echoing Malick with visuals ranging from ethereal to haunting.
The current political climate might well be helping fuel my enthusiasm for Jackie. Indeed, in a time when the reputation and status of the U.S. presidency seems to sink lower by the day a film eulogizing a grander time in American politics is certain to resonant. The uncanny timing certainly makes the film all the more powerful, but it isn’t the only reason I’m honouring Jackie. On a technical level, this excels, with great editing, a memorable score, and some strong visual filmmaking. It is however intellectually that the film most appeals to me, providing both a deep character study and a fascinating meditation on legacy and myth making. Most of the discussion about Jackie has of course been centered on Natalie Portman. Her work is indeed brilliant and worthy of praise, but she’s hardly the only great to be found here.