The opening frames of Jackie lead one to believe they’re about to see a horror film. One wouldn’t be far off. The camera rests on Natalie Portman’s solemn face, staring off into the distance, as Mica Levi’s heart-rending score pounds out strained, delirious notes. It’s a jarring opening for a film filled with sadness and despair. Perhaps it is because it feels like we, as Americans, have romanticized John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination over the decades, or because I did not live through it, but the film is a roundhouse to the gut on an emotional level. It’s also a masterful circumvention of the biopic formula that has been used early and often over the past few years. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim have created an uncommonly intimate portrait of someone revered as the standard of class and glamour in a First Lady. We all lead a fragile existence on this planet, and no other family has had to deal with that in the public eye like the Kennedys.
Largely taking place in the days after Kennedy’s assassination, the film begins with Jackie (Portman) opening her Hyannis Port, Massachusetts home to an unnamed journalist (Crudup). He’s there to capture Jackie’s firsthand account of the assassination and the various decisions made afterwards. There’s the funeral procession, which she insists be a six block march next to Kennedy’s casket. Her closest confidantes, including Robert Kennedy (Sarsgaard), think she’s crazy considering what just happened to her husband in broad daylight. There’s breaking the news to her children, dealing with the murder of gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, and, most importantly, protecting JFK’s legacy.
Oppenheim’s script takes on a lot in a relatively compact ninety-nine minutes, but never does the film lose focus or feel rushed. To successfully turn a First Lady known for being a glamour icon and living the “perfect” Camelot-esque life into such a damaged, yet always caring “real” person isn’t an easy task. Here, it is seamless. Jackie is humanized through events likely lost on the public at the time such as having to tell her children that “bad people” killed their father, watching Lyndon Johnson be sworn in as President on a flight home, and contentious plans for a memorial that she wants to be on the scale of Abraham Lincoln’s. While not always handled with subtlety, Larraín’s direction exudes grace.
Appearing in all but a few seconds of the movie, Natalie Portman turns in career-best work. That is saying something considering her brilliant turn in Black Swan. Here, however, she completely transforms and her struggles feel so real. This is a very understated performance, built more so on resisting the urge to cry rather than doing it. She relays everything through her eyes. It’s a stunning piece of work and a standout performance in 2016. The supporting players are all well-cast and effective, particularly Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and Crudup as the journalist.
The biopic genre has seen a flood of entrants in recent years, ranging from great (Lincoln) to flat-out bad (Hyde Park on Hudson). The underwhelming ones usually get distracted and cute with their subjects. Jackie does neither, thrusting the audience directly into something that none of us ever wants to experience. Portman carries the movie in a feat of understated, soul-crushing acting. Jackie is a somber, powerful experience that wisely avoids the tropes we’re all accustomed to.
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Length: 99 Minutes
Rating: R for brief strong violence and some language.
Theatrical Release: December 2, 2016
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt