Most audience members will go into Jackie expecting a traditional biopic of Jackie Kennedy, the former first lady who became an icon in the 1960s. They'll want a standard rise-and-fall narrative, the story of how she met JFK, how she created her classic style, how she handled life after her husband was killed. And when they see this film, they will be sorely disappointed. Pablo Larrain's Jackie is not your typical biopic, which is the film's greatest asset. This is a haunting, genuinely mesmerizing exploration of legacy, grief, and the American identity. By focusing on the immediate weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Larrain finds spectacular insight into the soul of a woman who created an alternate personality for the cameras, and discovers an astonishing sense of truth at the heart of the Camelot mythology.
Much of the credit will certainly go to Natalie Portman, who delivers a flat-out brilliant performance as the titular character in this film. But Jackie strikes a deeper chord. Yes, it's about Jackie, and yes, it's about the Kennedy family, but most importantly, it's a movie about our history as a nation and the creation of the legacy of our leaders. Larrain imagines Jackie as the creator of the Kennedy legacy, the woman who ensured that JFK would be remembered as one of the greatest presidents in history and the woman who molded the idea that Camelot was the last great dynasty in American history. By delving into these two fascinating, bold ideas, Larrain reaches new territory that few directors have ever explored. Jackie is an incredible film to dissect and discuss, but it's also a demonstration of sheer cinematic power. It's one of the best films of the year, and one that you simply can't miss in a very crowded awards season.
As I mentioned earlier, Jackie is not your standard portrait of a historical figure, instead opting to solely focus on the immediate aftermath of one of the defining events of American history. The film is framed around Jackie's interview with a reporter (Billy Crudup), who is attempting to get her unique perspective on the assassination. Through the course of this conversation, Jackie reflects on the course of the two weeks that changed her life, as well as the coping process that she used to push forward during a difficult time. Sure, the movie flashes back to the actual events, with individual scenes focusing on her relationship with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), but primarily, this is a movie about reflection. It's about the construction of a legacy, and how Jackie Kennedy pushed through during an incredibly tragic time to create something larger than life.
Jackie is a remarkable, distinct achievement, unlike any other biopic that I've ever seen. It unfolds in a docu-drama style, giving us a stark contrast between the behind-the-scenes world of the Kennedy family and the on-air appearance of decadence and smooth charisma. For most of the film, JFK exists merely as a shadow, an idea looming in the back of Jackie's mind as she finds a way to honor his legacy. This is a bold choice. Most filmmakers would feel tempted to show the interactions and daily life of the iconic First Family in a very personal way, especially when they're working with an actor who bears such an uncanny resemblance to JFK in Caspar Phillipson. But thankfully, Larrain knows that his film is not about him, and he restricts Phillipson's screen time to fleeting moments at the end of the story. In the world of Jackie, JFK is already gone, working merely as a presence that almost seems to haunt the former First Lady. But in his absence, Larrain seems to find an even more profound statement about the Kennedy dynasty, one that lingers in the mind long after leaving the theater. Jackie is a movie about its titular subject, but it is also keenly aware of the history that she created and the legacy that the Kennedy family left behind.
Of course, the movie is centered around Natalie Portman's towering, incredible performance as Jackie Kennedy. Here, Portman is tasked with essentially playing two characters- the version of Jackie that Americans saw on TV and the version of Jackie that existed behind-the-scenes. I'm not a historical expert by any stretch, but she nails the mannerisms and tone of an early 1960s television persona, very fake and meticulously controlled in her interaction with the public. But behind closed doors, Jackie's mind is a constant swirl of ideas, always laser-focused on the big picture. She lets others handle the minute details for the cameras, while she attempts to craft the legacy of her family. Portman gives Jackie a fiery command of her own, and her ability to convey both the vulnerability and strength of this famous figure is never short of amazing. She delivers one of the best performances of the year, and I would not be surprised if the Academy rewards her in February.
Most audience members will be surprised and thrilled by the way that Portman molds and re-shapes our perception of Jackie Kennedy, creating a portrait that is nothing short of definitive. Jackie exists as one of the most fascinating cinematic depictions of the Kennedy family and the assassination, which is no small feat. But what elevates this from being merely an exceptional exploration of a famous family to a compelling, dynamic portrait of the creation of American history is the terrific script by Noah Oppenheim and the outstanding direction of Pablo Larrain. These are two talented, intuitive filmmakers, and what they have done here is downright marvelous.
In one of the best scenes in the film, Jackie asks a limo driver several questions. "Do you know who William McKinley was?" The driver says he doesn't. "What about James Garfield?" He doesn't know him either. "Now, do you know Abraham Lincoln?" Of course, the driver knows him. Jackie sits back in her seat, almost with a half-smile on her face. All of those figures are American presidents who were assassinated. But only Lincoln has been remembered. Only Lincoln is memorialized in our nation's capital, only Lincoln is featured on our nation's currency. In the world that Larrain and Oppenheim create, Jackie wasn't going to let her husband's memory fade into oblivion like McKinley and Garfield. He was going to be remembered, he was going to be mourned, and he would leave a lasting legacy of strength and freedom. There needed to be a massive funeral procession, there needed to be horses and carriages and soldiers, and most importantly, the first family needed to be in the thick of it, leading the government and the country into the future. We've never seen a film that so keenly observes how history can become ingrained in our collective consciousness, and for that reason, Jackie exists on a totally different level when it comes to historical biopics.
But while Jackie manages to expand its horizons to examine the scope of American history at large, it never loses sight of the woman at the center of it all. The Kennedy/Camelot legacy was her doing, but why? Was it all because she wanted her husband to go down in the history books as the most iconic president of the 20th century? Was it due to the fact that "people need their history" as she says at one point during the film? Or was it for a deeper, more personal reason? Larrain certainly incorporates aspects of the former two, but the latter generates some interesting discussion and provokes quite a bit of thought. During the second half of the film, Jackie has several discussions with a priest, played by John Hurt. In one of their conversations, after most of the film centers on her desire to craft a lasting legacy for her husband and her family, Jackie finally relents and says that all of the excess was done for her own benefit. The elaborate funeral was a way for her to honor her husband and move on with her life, a fancy, sophisticated way of grieving a tragic loss. The fact that Larrain examines both legacy and grief so thoroughly in one relatively short film is a true accomplishment, making Jackie all the more impressive.
In addition to all of the fascinating subtext and historical analysis, Jackie is also an unforgettable cinematic experience. Much has already been said about Mica Levi's score, but let me heap on the praise some more. Levi's score wouldn't work outside the confines of the movie- it exists mostly as unnerving mood music, meant to underscore the horror and tragedy of the action. But while it probably wouldn't work as easy listening, it's impossible to imagine the movie without Levi's haunting chords in the background. The cinematography by Stephane Fontaine is extraordinarily well done, managing to feel both glossy and amazingly authentic. Jackie feels like a documentary at times, and that's due to a mix of Fontaine's beautiful images and the intimate camerawork of Larrain. The design elements are nothing short of perfection, with glorious costumes, beautiful locales, and breathtaking sets giving the film a sense of character.
But even with all of the carefully crafted design elements, Jackie will linger in your mind because of Portman's performance and the stunning examination of legacy, grieving, and America's past. This is the best film about America's history that I've seen in a long time, an essential watch for those hoping to gain an understanding of how legends and icons are created. And for those who admire Jackie Kennedy, I can't imagine any other film coming close to the level of depth and understanding that Jackie displays. Oscar season is crowded, and there are so many films that are competing for box office dollars. But even if it ends up falling out of the Best Picture race, Pablo Larrain's monumental work deserves your time and attention. Jackie is the real deal.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (9.4/10)
Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures