“I never wanted fame, I just became a Kennedy.”
The above quote, perhaps more than any other, really encapsulated the message that Pablo Larraín was trying to send with his new film Jackie. The film follows Jackie Kennedy through the days following her husband’s assassination as she reacts to the former President’s death and plans his funeral. It’s clear in the film, and in any reading done about Jackie, that she was not a brilliant political figure. She was simply a fairly ordinary woman of her era to whom extraordinary events happened.
It needs to be put on the table early in any discussion of this film that Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy was stunning. The film is shot largely in close up on her face, capturing every moment from the perspective of a grieving wife. Larraín leans so heavily on Portman throughout the film; the entire project would’ve collapsed had she not been able to carry the weight. Her grief and anger are so palpable, you will yourself begin grieving President Kennedy’s death. She is shot in a particularly striking close up as she wipes her late husband’s blood from her face while crying in the mirror. The moment relies solely on Portman, and it is devastating.
Given Portman’s prominence in the film, almost every scene is shown directly from Jackie’s perspective. Often times conversations can be heard quietly occurring in the background as she focuses on other things. There is a wonderfully choreographed scene where Jackie, Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), and some of the Kennedys’ advisors are in Arlington Cemetery trying to find a plot for the late President. As the men discuss possibilities, Jackie limps through the muddy cemetery, her high heels sticking in the mud, trying to find the perfect spot for her husband’s body.
One aspect of Jackie Kennedy’s character perfectly captured in the film is her role as the First Lady. She was not shaping policy or advising the president or even involving herself with public projects. She was a woman of the 60s, and one viewed as a beacon of class. Her job was to organize lavish parties, to find and appreciate great art, and to redecorate the White House. The film has a few secondary narratives running through it, one of which is Jackie filming a famous video of her giving a tour of the White House after she had renovated it. Actual audio of President Kennedy’s voice is used in the portion of the video where he is interviewed. In fact, Larraín makes use of actual footage from the era multiple times throughout the film, which adds to the film’s authenticity.
Jackie’s cinematography is another area where it deserves applause. Larraín frames many of his shots symmetrically, making Jackie the focal point of the film not just emotionally, but visually. He never misses an opportunity to make a frame into a work of art. This reflects Jackie’s passion for the arts that she displays throughout the film. He uses the vibrant colors with which Jackie Kennedy was often associated to create beauty within her misery. He recreates famous moments to such perfection, that historical footage can be incorporated seamlessly.
The film’s only failing was in a few disjointed and cliched plot devices. In particular, there are interactions between Jackie and a priest peppered through the film’s second half. The interaction is to offer some cathartic dialogue and to emphasize the importance of the Kennedys’ Catholic background, but the device of the wise, old priest has been used in so many movies, it offers nothing proprietary and very little that is interesting. It also attempts to provide comic relief in a movie that didn’t need any.
The primary subplot which drove Jackie to tell her story was of her speaking with a journalist at her home. This also felt a little needless. There have been so many films driven by this sort of plot device, but most of the interaction offered little insight. Both of these subplots had a few great moments, but were ultimately overused.
Despite these minor flaws, Jackie is an excellent portrayal of a few horrific days in United States history through the eyes of the woman who was the most devastated by it. It is a film which recreates history to a point that the viewer feels like they are actually witnessing the events unfold and makes great use of its talented star. Jackie may not be the way to search out fun or laughs, but it is a beautiful and raw portrait of an aggrieved woman that will cut to your core.