8.5 out of 10
Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
America has a habit of mythologizing our history. Unlike other countries, perhaps, with a more extensive story, we tend to build up those aspects of our identity in our heroes and skim over the rest. Even in a tumultuous year like 1963, the concept of what history will choose to remember and what history will ignore is ever-present. For those who are, in the parlance of another recent historical biography, “in the room where it happens,” they can lay the groundwork, and they can attempt to steer the course, but our myths grow in the hearts of Americans due to their power. If it inspires, we tend to believe it. The truth is more ephemeral, and that’s just how we want it. If the fairy tale is what keeps us moving forward, we will embrace that narrative. We need only the excuse.
No one is more aware of that than Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), in Pablo Larraín’s terrific character study Jackie. She has no reservations in telling the journalist sent to her home in Massachusetts that she will be editing his story. The journalist (Billy Crudup) doesn’t even put up too much of a fight; like Jackie, he knows that the myth is what sells, and if he wants to get at the truth, it’s for his own personal satisfaction and certainly not for the readers. As Jackie explores the horrifying days surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), we see the building of the myth, and we see the motivations behind it. But we also see the grief of a wife and mother struggling to balance the emotional needs of the country with her own. That grief is without limit, an inexorable tide that threatens to whisk away all manner of grace and dignity. All eyes are on Jackie, and she isn’t even allowed to stray from the parameters of that acceptable grief except in private. The only person who seems to have the same understanding as her is Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), but while Jackie is mourning a husband and father, Bobby is mourning the loss of what he and his brother could have accomplished together. While Jackie tries to present a dignified and strong front, Bobby is coiled rage, threatening at any moment to unload itself. In the hours and days after Dallas, both attempt to pick up the shattered pieces of Camelot and understand what has happened.
Jackie moves backwards and forwards in time, but it isn’t disorientating; Larraín is a consummate emotional navigator in this story, and we are riding those waves with him. We see Jackie showing off the White House on television, a striking contrast to the woman in the shower, rinsing the President’s blood off her body. Her duty as First Lady and her own grief are in conflict; Jackie wants to have a huge funeral procession and we cannot be sure if it is because of her own sorrow or for her need for self-aggrandizement. Her sorrow is very real, but so is her ego, and Portman skillfully intertwines the two to find something real and tangible in her portrayal.
There is real power in Natalie Portman’s work here. In Jackie’s private moments, when her anguish overthrows her reason and poise, Portman is extraordinary, but she is also amazing when she is the cool and collected First Lady, dealing with a transition team that is eager to use her husband’s assassination to further their own agendas, and her husband’s brother who tries to keep his dignity intact in his own way. They are strange allies in a world that seems to want every last piece of history from them. Peter Sarsgaard’s performance is astonishing as well; while Jackie puts on her public face, Bobby must as well, but his anger threatens to crack through the façade. Even in the days after the assassination, Bobby questions his place in history, and the significance of what Bobby and John did together, and Sarsgaard puts it all in his performance. Together Portman and Sarsgaard are the raging, weeping heart of Jackie, and while nominations may be obvious, the work these two actors are doing should not be underestimated.
The cinematography of Stéphane Fontaine is elegant and graceful. His camera floats through Jackie sometimes like a dream, sometimes like a nightmare (the Steadicam work as we glide through the White House strongly reminded me of John Alcott’s work in The Shining). Mica Levi’s score threatens to be overpowering at times, but it also echoes the tempest of emotions that Jackie and Bobby are going through. Darren Aronofsky is a producer on Jackie, and the way the film rides emotional currents feels very much in his wheelhouse. In his English-language debut, Pablo Larraín, best known for his Chilean films No and Tony Manero, has an affinity not only for the American legend, but how those legends are built piece by piece, and the yearning for a public to find comfort in a story that offers little of that.
We love our narratives in America, Jackie suggests, and we will attach ourselves to one regardless of the truth of it. In Jackie’s world, the musical “Camelot” is almost embarrassing, but in the American myth of JFK and our need to find meaning in the meaningless, “Camelot” becomes a touchstone for something more. But at the center of it all, there is still a grieving widow, trying to find her place in the world again after such a devastating loss, and Jackie never lets you forget that. Jackie finds humanity in the pomp and splendor, and a deep empathy for those who must always live in the public eye and are not even allowed to mourn in their own way. There is real grace, sorrow, and beauty to Jackie, and it is a rich and rewarding cinematic experience.