Directed by: Pablo Larraín.
Written by: Noah Oppenheim.
Starring: Natalie Portman (Jackie Kennedy), Peter Sarsgaard (Robert F. Kennedy), Greta Gerwig (Nancy Tuckerman), Billy Crudup (Theodore H. White), John Hurt (Father Richard McSorley), Max Casella (Jack Valenti), Beth Grant (Lady Bird Johnson), Richard E. Grant (William Walton), Caspar Phillipson (President John F. Kennedy), John Carroll Lynch (President Lyndon B. Johnson).
Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is not a typical biopic of one of America’s most famous first ladies. Largely taking place in the week after her husband was assassinated in Dallas, Jackie zooms in for a close-up view of Jackie Kennedy in those days – in the audience, we can see she’s suffering from PTSD, but no one in the movie seems to notice. Everyone around her seems more concerned with what’s going to happen next – her brother-in-law Bobby is distraught about how little they actually accomplished, Lyndon Johnson wants to swear in as soon as possible, and then push the Kennedys aside while looking sympathetic, publicly – his wife is seen in the background picking out fabric swatches as Jackie tries to make funeral arrangements. The film gets close to Jackie – uncomfortably so, as the camera often sees her in close-up – right up in her face – and yet the film ultimately keeps us at a distance from Jackie, because that is exactly what she is doing. Throughout the film, she plays various roles, dons various masks – only occasionally letting her guard down at all. She becomes obsessed with the funeral arrangements – because she knows how important appearances are – they are everything, so no matter the truth of her marriage, she is going to ensure that her husband gets the sendoff he deserves.
Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances of the year as Jackie. The accent she dons for Jackie is distracting just for a minute or two – we’re not used it coming out of her mouth – but quickly, we settle into it. The framing device of the movie has Jackie talking to a reporter (Billy Crudup), just a week after the Assassination of her husband – and it’s clear from the outset that Jackie intends the story he is writing to come up precisely how she wants it to. Throughout the interview she teases him a little bit – revealing some darker parts of herself, and then pulling back (“You don’t think I’m going to let you publish that, do you?”). It mirrors what we see her do throughout much of the rest of the movie – as she has to stare down Bobby Kennedy, the Johnsons’ people, the Secret Service, etc. – in order to have the funeral procession that her husband deserves. She’s more honest with the reporter than she is with the rest of them – at least she reveals a little of how broken she is to him, something she steadfastly hides from the others she needs to stare down.
The other part of the film feels a little odd at first – it’s a flashback to a TV special from earlier in the Kennedy administration where Jackie gives the viewers at home a guided tour of the White House – and explains everything she did – the acquiring of the historical items, restoring the White House. What do these segments – seen in black and white, with Jackie more stiff and awkward than normal – have to do with the rest of the film? After a while though it sinks in – first of all, it’s yet another mask Jackie is wearing – the fake plastic smile on her face, the way she so loving greets her husband when he joins her (even though, at other parts of the movie, it’s made clear that their marriage wasn’t particularly good – and he thought her own redesign project of the White House was a waste of money and time). For another, it works just as she describes her goal to the interviewer – to remind people that the Presidents are real people. It’s yet another brilliant aspect of Portman’s performance – another facet, another way of hiding the truth in plain sight.
On a technical level, Jackie is quite simply, masterful. I’ve run hot and cold on Larrain’s films in the past – but his chilly exteriors are perfectly suited for this film. The cinematography is wonderful, the production design and costume design capture the period perfectly. The most ingenious decision was to hire Mica Levi to do the score - doing her second score ever, after her brilliant work on Under the Skin. The score carries this movie along – it’s ever present, and risks being off-putting. Yet it underlines what Larrain and company are doing here – making a fractured portrait, almost a horror film, out of this one woman’s grief.
Jackie doesn’t strive to give you a complete portrait of Jackie Kennedy – it may not even be a wholly accurate one. But it’s a powerful film about grief, and the roles people like Jackie Kennedy has to play – the masks she has to wear – the heartbreaking decisions, both public and private, she had to make. It’s easily one of the year’s best films.