“Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Jacqueline Kennedy crafted the idea of her time in the White House as the second coming of Camelot. Jackie, which takes place in the days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is more Shakespearian tragedy than Arthurian musical. More precisely, it’s the aftermath of one of The Bard’s tragedies. Director Pablo Larrain, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, and star Natalie Portman have given us a compelling and intense character study of the former First Lady. She was at the epicenter of a catastrophic event in 20th century American history, and their film humanizes her in a profound way.
The main plot of the film covers the week between JFK’s assassination and his burial. Jackie has summoned a journalist to her Hyannis Port, Massachusetts home for an interview. These interview scenes act as a framing device for flashbacks to all that has happened the previous week. Also included are Jackie’s reminiscences of a televised tour of the White House she gave in the early days of President Kennedy’s administration.
Jackie has many qualities worthy of acclaim, but any appraisal of those qualities must begin and end with Natalie Portman’s performance. This is, without a doubt, the performance of Portman’s career thus far. Not only did she render her subject’s mannerisms and speech patterns impeccably – the actress reportedly studied hours of audio and video interviews in preparation – she also found a deeper emotional truth in her interpretation of the former First Lady. This movie is an unflinching look at the anguish, love, and rage swirling inside Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s murder. Portman radiates those inner emotions on screen.
Larrain must have felt very comfortable with how highly skilled his lead actress was. His stylistic choices for Jackie left no room for Portman to give anything less than her all. This is a very intimate film, a film of close-ups. In almost every conversation Jackie Kennedy has with those around her, the camera is inches from her face, capturing her inner turmoil.
Perhaps as a defense mechanism to deal with her grief, she made the preparations for the funeral in the only way she knew how: as a grand gesture showcasing the pomp and circumstance befitting a fallen president. Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim deftly juxtaposes flashback scenes of Mrs. Kennedy hosting a television camera crew at the White House with her planning the intricate details of her husband’s funeral march. In both instances, Jackie shows her skill and brilliance in presenting a finely crafted public persona. She studied Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in the days after her husband’s assassination, and she understood the importance of cementing his legacy by making his farewell a larger-than-life event.
Oppenheim, who, in addition to being a screenwriter, is also president of NBC News, has a flare for the dramatic that fits nicely with this kind of engrossing character study. On the flight back to Washington, D.C. following the assassination, Lady Bird Johnson suggests that Jackie change clothes. The world doesn’t need to see President Kennedy’s blood all over her instantly iconic pink suit, Lady Bird advises. Jackie refuses. “Let them see what they’ve done,” she says. It’s a particularly powerful moment in a picture full of them.
There are moments that seem out of place in Jackie, though. The interview mentioned above, based on the one Theodore H. White published in LIFE magazine in December of 1963, has a strangely antagonistic quality. The two have never met, and the interview takes place days after John F. Kennedy’s funeral, but the scenes between them are written as if they have a fractious history filled with secrets. Billy Crudup plays the reporter, listed simply as “The Journalist” in the credits, and his time on screen is intriguing, if a bit perplexing.
A big part of what makes Jackie such a success is its mournful tone. Helping Larrain in that goal is musician Mica Levi. She is known primarily as a singer/songwriter, and prior to her work on Jackie, her only other film score was the ethereal music for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. The haunting beauty of Levi’s orchestral strings for Jackie marvelously complements Portman’s melancholic performance and Stéphane Fontaine’s grey, moody cinematography. The only false note in Levi’s score is a brief moment when Jackie bursts through the door on her husband’s autopsy. The music rises in soap-operatic melodrama before returning to its ghostly origins.
Despite focusing mainly on the aftermath of the assassination, Jackie does describe in her interview the actual moment of the murder. Larrain and Oppenheim give us that world-changing instant in flashback, and the director doesn’t spare us the horrific sight. The endlessly debated second shot – the one that rocked Kennedy’s body back, and to the left, ripping away half his face – is captured in the film with shattering realism.
If you can handle those few seconds, you will be rewarded with a glimpse into the life and mind of someone with boundless grace. Jackie Kennedy was forced to deal with circumstances that no one should have to endure. It tested her psyche. There are points in the film when we see Jackie momentarily losing a grasp on sanity. Portman is a revelation in these moments and all the rest, and Larrain photographs them with a great amount of care and respect. At the end of Jackie, due in no small part to Portman’s performance, I felt I had a deeper understanding of who Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was. That’s the highest possible compliment I could pay to this, or any, biopic.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- This is another one that is all about mood for me. Almost every piece works together harmoniously to create a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. The score is dark and beautiful, the direction is assured, the writing is phenomenal, and the acting, sublime.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- In true forgetful fashion, it was about an hour after I had finished my first draft of this review when I suddenly realized, "I didn't write about the aspect ratios!" Larrain frames the bulk of his movie in 1.66:1, a ratio not used much in major theatrical filmmaking anymore. It evokes the academy ratio of 1.37:1, and the old (pre-HDTV) television aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which Larrain uses for the recreations of the TV White House tour that Jackie Kennedy hosted in 1962. His use of these ratios gives the movie a real throw-back feeling; it's an authenticity that lends the movie an air of realism.