Jackie Kennedy, the woman behind one of the greatest and most influential Presidents in the history of the United States, gets an intimate impressionist portrait. Forging the myths of “Camelot,” interrogating the morality of being a widow in the most drastic and heavily scrutinised circumstance; director Pablo Larraín and hypnotic star Natalie Portman finds ways to render gut punching alternate perspectives to well trodden history.
Jackie is a film of three distinct modes. The first is a battle of maintaining the mythical status of JFK and the manipulation of the media. This charts the sequence of events providing the context of her role as the first lady and how she occupied her time. Billy Crudup is the harsh faced and cynical reporter fielding the facts and being required to massage them for the privilege of the one on one interview. The second mode is a battle for morality and challenging God’s will. Unfolding in a parallel conversation with ageing Catholic preacher played by William Hurt, this confessional conversation reveals Jackie’s cards, so to speak. You see a window into a calculating effort for ceremony, in a moment that Jackie and the family are being unceremoniously dispossessed of their status and station. Finally the connective tissue of the film is the incredible renderings of the different perspectives of some of the most iconic images of 20th century America. The colour rendering of the entire film is precisely crafted to match the Zapruder and television footage of the time. It’s like watching people leap out of stock footage.
The moments of Jackie that totally overwhelm you are those where they don’t rely on the characters ever uttering a word. Larraín goes through a series of hypnotic pursuits through Jackie’s experience. Watching the car flight through a desolate Dallas freeway in the wake of the assassination and the horrific scene therein; the blood streaming down Portman’s back, flexing and hunched as if the weight of the destiny of the USA is mounting on her tiny shoulders; sifting through the glut of ‘things’ in the soon to be vacated Presidential apartments in a haze of cigarette smoke. All of these are complemented by a memorable and powerful score from Mica Levi that ever so slightly nudges the level of of pure manipulation. For the most part the scenes are elevated to dizzying heights by their partnership. Reaching for the power of Kubrick or vintage Malick, Larraín’s formal aptitude makes him one to watch from here on out.
Writer Noah Oppenheim’s structure suffers from the lack of clarity in the structure of the work. While you can see it as an intentional step away from the well worn rhythm of a biopic; it loses the audience in the moments that you’re trying to regain your bearings.
Portman’s performance at times feels too occupied with being able to be accurate with the details, particularly Jackie’s very specific dialect, that it breaches your suspension of disbelief. These are the moments in the White House, recreating the famous glimpse into America’s first house. When Portman is able to abandon the charade, so to speak, the film’s most powerful moments shine through.
The cast is so deep in what feels like small and integral roles. Hurt’s ability to provide guidance and demonstrate the restraint of a man wrestling with the magnitude of his subject’s grief make him the best in class of those in support. Saarsgaard is terrific as the ball-busting Bobby, formidable and strong in the face of the tragedy. Greta Gerwig’s Nancy Tuckerman and Richard E. Grant’s Bill Wilton are those kinds of people that are so wholly essential to Jackie’s existence as First Lady, but cannot be possessed as their duty is to the role.
Jackie’s power is in the sticky quality of the moments of pure cinematic composition. Those images, moments and chords in the score flicker in your memory long after the viewing. The whole experience of the film though, doesn’t gel into the sublime work that it was striving to be.
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Natalie Portman ... Jackie Kennedy
Peter Sarsgaard ... Bobby Kennedy
Greta Gerwig ... Nancy Tuckerman
Billy Crudup ... The Journalist
John Hurt ... The Priest
Richard E. Grant ... Bill Walton
Caspar Phillipson ... John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Beth Grant ... Lady Bird Johnson
John Carroll Lynch ... Lyndon B Johnson
Max Casella ... Jack Valenti
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.