‘Jackie’ is one of those movies that attempts to humanize a famous face known mostly from photographs. The Jackie in question is of course the widow of the great John F. Kennedy. His story has been told many times before. This time, the focus is on the extraordinary grief and tragedy that that the First Lady suffered as she marched solemnly through a horrible few days that would forever leave her as a footnote in history.
This idea easily could have been made into a forgettable Lifetime network weepy, but through the eyes of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (‘No’, ‘The Club’), the film becomes something far more compelling and cinematic. At best, ‘Jackie’ can feel like an expressionistic tone poem. At worst, it plays as pure melodrama. Thankfully, it mostly falls somewhere in the middle and Natalie Portman is never less than extraordinary in the title role.
The film opens shortly after the Kennedy assassination. Jackie (Portman) is suitably sullen and in the midst of a recovery process she may never escape when a reporter (Billy Crudup) arrives to get her story. She has editorial approval, but that’s mostly just a device that lets her soften what we’re supposed to view as “real” history. Jackie slowly goes back through her recent memories. We see the horrible shots by her side. We see her stand by as Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as President while the woman remains splattered in her late husband’s blood. We see her dissolve. We see her find the strength to demand a prominent place at the funeral against the wishes of those around her. We see her fight with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) about JFK’s legacy. We see her grieve to a priest (John Hurt), contemplating the unfathomable.
We also see her in happier times, watching a theatrical performance of significance at the White House and also giving a tour through the estate for television, all poise and smiles in meticulously reconstructed footage. The various threads are all mixed up and told seemingly simultaneously. All the while, the film keeps cutting back to her interview, as a wiser and forever changed woman attempts to reconcile with the tragic few weeks that unexpectedly defined the rest of her life.
While there are many ways in which ‘Jackie’ falls into conventional bio-pic modes, it remains memorable for the ways in which director Larrain departs from the form. The film has a woozy, hazy quality in structure and telling. It feels like memories unraveling in a non-linear fashion guided by emotion. The camera gets uncomfortably close to its protagonist (often with the performers staring straight down the barrel of the lens), probing the character and actress for all they’re worth. Sequences blend into each other in illogical ways that feel odd until the filmmaker gradually pulls it all together. Near constant, nauseatingly discordant string music by Mica Levi (‘Under the Skin’) plays throughout. The score would be more suitable to a horror movie (which the story can feel like at times), but it effectively fills viewers with the dread and discomfort that the story deserves. It’s not the sort of cozy cinematic storytelling we expect from bio-pics with current celebrities playing former celebrities. Larrain was allowed to shoot and edit ‘Jackie’ like an art film.
At the center of nearly every frame is the small yet powerful human frame of Natalie Portman. She has the challenge of playing a woman who famously kept her emotions hidden behind a stony, strong mask. Portman follows suit, playing most of the film through glares and sideways glances that reveal inner feelings in the smallest of ways. She has a few big emotional outbursts, mostly during the assassination sequences. However, for the most part the quieter moments (like when she finally washes the blood out of her hair after an excruciatingly long day) register most deeply. She nails the iconic voice and pose of Jackie Kennedy with ease. Though it would have been a distraction if she didn’t, that’s almost the easy part. The tough stuff comes in the ways in which Portman hides her character’s horrible feelings in plain sight and depicts a shattered soul standing tall against the impossible. It’s one of her best performances.
While the film’s style and lead performance are indeed worthy of high praise, they’re far and away the finest elements in a film that otherwise teeters towards mediocrity. Dialogue can feel far too formal, as can the awkward lurching metaphors laced in throughout (ugh…Camelot). Portman is given fine acting partners in the likes of Sarsgaard, Crudup and Hurt, but none of them have particularly compelling roles to play. They mostly just service the exposition or Jackie’s various monologues, breaking stride only to deliver overly grandiose speeches. As unconventional as Larrain’s telling of this tale might be, it’s still at times an aggrandizing portrait of celebrity, designed to extend the shelf life of a 20th Century icon as much as poke through to her humanity.
It’s tough to watch ‘Jackie’ sink into melodramatic and clichéd lows. The film works so beautifully when ignoring those moments or giving Portman and Larrain a chance to express the themes silently rather than through needlessly on-the-nose dialogue. Still, so much of ‘Jackie’ works well enough that it overcomes most shortcomings. It’s just a shame that Larrain wasn’t able to fully abandon the clichéd needs of the Oscar bait bio-pic. He came damn close, and it’s magical to behold the sequences in which he and Portman transcend the material they were given.