Like our popular conception of its subject, Jackie Kennedy, Pablo Larran's Jackie is a curious mixture of fragility and steely resolve. It is beautiful and admirable and emotionally engaging in relating the events during and immediately after the assassination of John F. Kennedy as seen through Jackie's eyes, although there is something about it that doesn't quite let you fully in. Perhaps it is the astute elegance of its design, or the studied thoroughness of its evocation of a particular moment in American history, or its continual shifts between public performance and private vulnerability. It feels distinctly made, poised and crafted in a way that is impressive and a little bit intimidating, just like Jackie, who at the time of her husband's death was the third youngest of the then 29 First Ladies and certainly the most visually present in the American imagination. The film sits at a remove, enticing us to try to understand the enormity of what Jackie went through in those days following November 11, 1963, and always reminding us that such understanding is a pipe dream, the stuff of pop culture mythology.
In fact, Jackie is, if anything, a study in mythmaking, as the narrative is built around an interview Jackie (Natalie Portman) gives one week after the assassination to an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) at the Kennedy mansion in Hyannisport, Massachusetts (in real life, the interview was given to Theodore H. White of Life magazine). It was during this interview that Jackie suggested the connection between the Kennedy Presidency and King Arthur's Camelot, partially inspired by the fact that Kennedy liked to listen to the Alan Jay Lerner musical. The idea of the Kennedys as American royalty is both adored and derided, and what Jackie does so well is convey the stark dichotomy between the public persona that Jackie maintained in the wake of the assassination and the sorrow, confusion, anger, and loss that she had to constantly pack away, revealed only in moments of intense privacy. Her need for control is palpable, and it comes out in ways that feel both profound and petty (she is at times vicious and even a little taunting when she reminds the journalist that she will be editing every word of her interview and that he will not print anything about her smoking).
Portman's performance is being hailed, and rightly so; she captures with impressive precision the cadences of Jackie's soft, lilting voice and her unique mannerisms, but not in a way that feels mannered or tidy. She lets us see that much of how we perceive Jackie Kennedy is a purposeful construction; early in the film, just before she begins filming a live television special in which she takes CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood on a tour of the fully restored White House, we see her practicing her lines with her friend and social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and it is fascinating the way her voice shifts-becomes more breathy and soft and practiced-when she goes into First Lady mode. The White House tour crops up throughout the film, as it was a formative moment in Jackie's public persona, helping to solidify her place as a fashion icon and designer while also feeding ammunition to her critics who found her blithe and extravagant.
Her awareness of the criticisms of both her and her husband are omnipresent and help shape her decisions, even the ones that fly against the face of conventional wisdom, such as the grand funeral procession modeled on Abraham Lincoln's she insisted Kennedy have despite fears of further violence. She is often in conflict with those around her, including her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) who, despite the Presidency shifting to Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), is effectively running the show, and Jack Valenti (Max Casella), Kennedy's ever-practical right-hand man who chafes at Jackie's insistence on doing things her way. Larran frequently shoots Jackie in close-up, allowing us to study the nuances of her expressions (never so powerfully as when she is wiping her husband's coagulating blood off her face in the bathroom in Air Force One). Those close-ups, however, are constantly offset with shots that dwarf her with her surroundings, whether it be a shot inside a hearse as she sits at the end of her husband's looming coffin or the tracking shots that follow her as she wanders through the empty living spaces in the White House, a cigarette and drink in hand, as if she is looking for something to give meaning to what has just happened (she also searches for meaning in lengthy conversation with a Catholic priest played by John Hurt).
A cynical film might have suggested emptiness behind the familiar faade, but Larran and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (a senior producer of the Today show who has also penned the scripts for The Maze Runner and Allegiant) are interested in Jackie as a person-a human being who suffers but bears the weight of her role with, if not nobility, at least integrity and gritty resolve. Like Oliver Stone's undervalued Nixon (1995), the relatable human element makes Jackie an admirable film of moral weight, as it takes a topic that could so easily have become a one-dimensional hagiography or a cruelly biting hatchet job and turns it into a powerful study in loss and resolve.
Copyright © 2016 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Fox Searchlight Pictures
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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