Director: Pablo Larraín
Screenwriter: Noah Oppenheim
Cast: Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig, Peter Sarsgaard, Max Casella, Beth Grant, Billy Crudup, Richard E. Grant, John Hurt
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rated R | 99 minutes
Release Date: December 2, 2016
Contemporary biopics no longer adhere to the traditional means of telling the entire life story of a subject. Nowadays, audiences are only given a small fraction of it. But it is in that stage of life that truly defines the subject. In Jackie, we see Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy at her most vulnerable point in life, where she has to deal with the grief of losing her husband, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. The traumatic event would be enough to shatter anyone, but it is what she does in the aftermath that will truly cement her name among the greatest of First Ladies. With a strong script from Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larrin giving an outsider’s perspective on the matter, Jackie is hauntingly poetic view of an untold story. My full review below.
Unlike most biopics, even those with a small timeframe, Jackie takes place a week after the assassination of JFK, with the title subject (Natalie Portman) speaking about the day of the event and the days after it leading up to the memorial in an interview piece with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). Oppenheim’s script doesn’t play like a normal chronicled biopic, though. Flashbacks to the days and weeks after the assassination can be seen as Jackie speaks during the interview, which each recollection playing a significant role in the film. Which looks purposefully dated as if it were shot on super 16 to give the film a grainy dated feel.
Jackie works purely as a Natalie Portman vehicle, with the supporting cast really giving a strong but very subtle performance. So a lot was riding on the actress being able to nail the role. For which, Portman was very successful. Portman is often in the center of the camera, establishing her role as the figurehead of the film but also focusing in on her immeasurable grief. She mixes pills with alcohol to mask the pain and whenever she is alone its hard to feel what she is feeling – although I imagine it is much worse than what we could ever imagine. In contrast, we see moments of her being happy when the film reenacts “A Tour Of The White House With Jackie Kennedy” or dancing in the hallways of the White House as “Camelot” plays on the record player.
It is after that single devastating moment that we see a transformation, from a quiet mid-Atlantic woman to a grieving widow to the incredibly strong and intelligent woman. She is seen asking drivers if they know of any previous Presidents who died while in office, and if any had been assassinated. The way she speaks about the history and elegance of the White House proves that she is no slouch. But her shining moment comes when she orchestrates JFK’s funeral procession to resemble that of Abraham Lincoln’s. Though many would try to convince her that it should be a quiet and peaceful one, Jackie remains strong in her convictions and refuses to have the procession any other way. It is how Portman commands the screen makes it feel as though you were right there with her during the tragedy. Her account of the story is gripping, and you can feel the anger, confusion, frustration, and love course through her. She refuses to shed any tears in public and remains steadfast in how JFK should be remembered before he is laid to rest.
Pablo Larraín’s decision to focus on Jackie almost entirely makes the film feel small in scope. But to see the flip side of that argument, all you have to do is look at the title. This is a Natalie Portman starring vehicle. While there are other cast members who are A-listers, their performances are quiet and subtle, almost to a point where it is unnoticeable. John Hurt plays a priest whom Jackie confides to during her time of grief. But his role is insignificant and rather does more to disrupt the tone than anything else. Another small distraction is Portman’s inability to grasp the Mid-Atlantic accent. It can be broken at times, but it doesn’t take away the power of her performance.
Those flaws are but a small fraction of a great unconventional biopic that gives audiences a glimpse into the life of Jackie Kennedy moments after her husband was assassinated before her eyes. Jackie doesn’t play by the typical biopic rules or even its popular deconstructed version; instead, the film narrates those moments during the interview, going from one moment to the next slowly revealing her pain even though she wants to hide it.