Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is many things. It is heartbreaking yet triumphant, claustrophobic yet expansive, classical yet innovative; but most of all, it is a great film. From an acting, directing and editorial standpoint, Jackie is a terrific achievement, impeccably executed yet almost never ostentatious or distracting. These traits are complimented by the film’s unique and complex score, which deftly melds themes that evoke the psychological thriller, the somber chamber piece and the ethereal drama – often simultaneously.
But what of the story? Well, we all know it, at least the major pieces. Jackie focuses on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the 35th First Lady of the United States. Opening approximately one week following the fateful and tragic events in Dallas in 1963, Larrain’s film explores Jackie’s physical, emotional and psychological anguish following her husband’s assassination. It powerfully grapples with the multifaceted nature of this iconic woman, highlighting not only her reaction to unspeakable trauma but also her relentless efforts to ensure some sort of legacy for John F. Kennedy.
Perhaps the best word to sum up the qualitative effect of Jackie is immersion. Larrain plunges one into the milieu of early-60s, despite the limitations of the film’s paltry nine-million-dollar budget. The smoke-clogged rooms, poofed hair and dizzying array of period costumes (designer Madeline Fontaine received a 2016 Oscar nomination) create a sense of lived-in reality for Natalie Portman’s Jackie to inhabit. Aesthetics such as these are complimented by the layered, psychologically-rich cinematography of Stéphane Fontaine, who had a banner year in 2016 with Jackie, Captain Fantastic and Elle.
Of course, there is more to admire about Jackie than its beautifully-rendered decor. The film boasts an outrageously talented cast, who breathe life into some of the most titanic political figures of the 60s. The most notable supporting role is occupied by the always-welcome Peter Sarsgaard, who portrays JFK’s brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Baumbach muse Greta Gerwig also appears as Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s childhood friend and White House Social Secretary during the Kennedy Administration. Gerwig is affecting in her small part as a source of support and comfort for Portman’s bereaved Jackie. It’s without a doubt one of the most un-Greta Gerwig roles Greta Gerwig has ever played – and that is a very, very good thing!
Other supporting parts are exponentially smaller and less impactful than the two noted above, but they are played no less competently. Veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch takes on the bit part of Lyndon B. Johnson and provides the requisite intimidating gravitas. Billy Crudup shows up as a reporter looking for the real story on the assassination. His interview with Jackie produces a strange, compelling dynamic and acts as a framing device for the film’s use of flashbacks. Finally, the late, wonderful actor John Hurt plays an unnamed priest who Jackie confers with periodically following the assassination. Although given very few scenes and saddled with moments of great intensity, Hurt pulls off the part with preternatural ease. His role in Jackie serves as a final reminder of his formidable and malleable talent.
Naturally, the largest role is the titular Jackie Kennedy, who is played by Natalie Portman in what is likely the greatest performance of her career. Portman’s burdened, thoughtful and heartbreaking performance is both thrilling and exhausting. Bringing nuance, maturity and a palpable inner-life to the character, it is hard to believe that Portman’s Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan was only a few years ago. Unlike that role – with its wild, Grand Guignol emotion and gallons of superficial tears – Portman appears, perhaps for the first time, truly grounded in Jackie. You believe in this character, and Portman deserves all the accolades that were tossed her way throughout the fall and winter of 2016.
Knitting all of this together is director Pablo Larrain, who, along with his acclaimed Spanish-language films Tony Manero, Post Mortem, No, The Club and Neruda, must surely be on his way to world-class director status. Larrain brings so much to the production that it’s difficult to truly quantify. The sensitivity on display is truly notable; it’s clear that the director cares deeply about his subject matter. That said, there is also an undercurrent of irreverence that percolates throughout the proceedings. In the “Making of” feature, which is one of the extras included on the Jackie BluRay, many members of the cast and crew discuss their belief that Larrain being Chilean is a critical factor in the film’s unique energy and approach. Whether this is true or not is probably beside the point, as this type of feeling simply exists, which is a definite boon.
The film’s audacious streak is reflected in other key areas of the production. Larrain enlisted the English composer Micachu to create the film’s score, and as noted above, this is a decision that paid off in proverbial spades. The Oscar-nominated score of Jackie has so many different layers and themes: It’s classical and emotional but also disconcerting and bizarre. Additionally, the film’s editing by Sebastián Sepúlveda encapsulates the textured psycho-drama of Larrain’s approach, seamlessly moving between past and present, and including memories within memories.
Larrain’s acute attention to detail is also strongly felt in Jackie, something most memorably shown in the film’s recreation of the White House tour documentary that the real Jackie Kennedy shot for CBS in 1962. In the “Making of” feature, Larrain comments on the meticulousness of staging this sequence, indicating how it is truly a shot-by-shot recreation filmed with cameras originating from that period. This whole part of the production is a great opportunity to also celebrate people like Art Directors Véronique Melery and Jean Rabasse, who helped recreate the interior of the White House, and again Natalie Portman’s work in the leading role. It is in these “documentary” scenes that you really get a sense of how much the actress transformed her voice to mimic Jackie’s posh, New York accent.
Even with everything it has going for it, Jackie is not perfect. The script by Noah Oppenheim is for the most part an accomplished work. It’s willingness to plumb the various sides of Jackie – including the public figure, the wife and the mother – is remarkable, as is its efforts to broach meaty themes such as the importance of myth and the commanding power of media.
It often does little with these themes, however, aside from talk about them. One example is in how the film treats Jackie’s quest to ensure JFK’s immortality. It’s odd that you never see or understand just how her actions contributed to him being today remembered as one of the greatest presidents who ever lived. Oppenheim doesn’t show; he just tells.
But that specific example isn’t really the point of the film. As Portman’s character says regarding her efforts to secure JFK a grand state funeral, “I did it for me.” This line encapsulates how the film is Jackie’s story and Jackie’s story alone. The film is not about so much about how a president’s legacy was preserved as it is about how a particular woman faced down horrific tragedy while occupying the brightest of national spotlights. Additionally, it’s about how storytelling and mythmaking serves an elemental role in human life – in the public sphere but also in the private sphere of everyday life. This is strongly communicated throughout Jackie. Through the work of Oppenheim, Portman, Larrain and the other filmmakers, Jackie is a portrait of how a first lady and a woman refused to fully bow to a crushing blow. It elegantly conveys how she emerged from madness and death wounded, vulnerable and human, yet still alive and bigger than life – an American giant in her own right.
Jackie is now available on BluRay, DVD, and Digital HD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.