2016 | rated R | starring Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt | directed by Pablo Larrain | 1hr 40mins |
Studio Pitch: The aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination told from the perspective of Jacquelyn Kennedy.
To the credit of director Pablo Larrain and the vision behind Jackie, what we’ll talk about here isn’t what I expected to talk about going into the biography of the life of Jacquelyn Kennedy. Jackie looks like it will be a polished, period prestige Oscar-bait film showing off a performance from Natalie Portman as the former first lady – and I suppose it is still that, but it takes the longer, more niche road to get there. On paper it probably looked like your usual biopic, this taking a snapshot of Jackie’s life in the minutes, days and weeks after the assassination that shocked the world, but the film takes a more fractured and non-linear approach, it centers it’s actors to talk directly into the camera at times and its soundtrack hums like a moody indie film. It wasn’t until Darren Arronofsky’s name appeared as producer in the end credits when the film’s vision clicked into focus for me. It is very much like the Arronofsky version of a Jacquelyn Kennedy biopic with his Black Swan star again put through an emotional ringer.
Jackie is told in fractured flashback with Jackie visited by a reporter (Billy Crudup) to get her account of the assassination of a president, her husband and father of her children. She suspects he wants the gory details and is far more media savvy than a famous tour of her design changes to the White House indicate. The film’s puzzlebox style hops around between later conversations and the immediate aftermath of the day in a way that comes together in the end, but feels like it is undercutting the movie’s emotional resonance in each moment. We aren’t offered a chance to linger in Jackie’s grief for too long, but sympathize with the idea of it. Grieving widows on screen aren’t new, but Jackie’s story is one of a woman who had to grieve in a glass house with the world watching, with handlers (Bobby Kennedy played by Peter Sarsgaard) directing her every statement, who had to plan her husband’s funeral under threat of more attacks and had to be shuttered out of her house after the ceremony was over while someone else redesigned it.
For any of it’s missteps, I greatly appreciate any biography that tries to do something different with the genre. There is basically no incentive in the industry to do so with audiences and award voters heaping praise on movies about important things as if the movie itself is as important. All they have to do is tell the story and Kennedy Assassination movies are catnip for these types. Jackie is a different beast, it’s more raw, more moody. It is a real film made by a real filmmaker instead of an overlong Oscar clip. In the end, I’m not sure if a straighter film of Jackie’s life and relationship with JFK (whose presence in this movie is often just a coffin) would been more effective. As it is, the movie’s theatrical puzzle nature keeps us at arm’s length. The film feels like it draws too much attention to itself, more interested in cinematic shell games than in the headspace of it’s subject.
Which leaves us with Portman’s terrific performance carrying the film as it is designed to do. She’s effective with the range of grief the movie requires within this snapshot of Jackie’s life. She spends much of the film shell-shocked, rambling her desires for the funeral with streaks of her husband’s blood on her dress. How good is her portrayal of Jackie O? That I can’t tell you. From what I’ve read of JFK and LBJ I don’t know enough about Jacquelyn Kennedy to judge. It’s here where we come to the not-so-cynical side of the prestige period biography film coin. Yes, they’re easy to make and easy to praise, but also committing history to film does an arguably invaluable service in preserving it and shaping our view of the past. So I’ll defer to the film, Portman’s portrayal and it’s assertion of her role in preserving the image of the Kennedy’s Camelot. In Jackie both history and our shared inspiring myths are important. It’s worth a look. Let’s hope it’s also accurate.