Dec 4, 2016
A jewel box of private and public pain, this film by Pablo Larraín is a layered study of the tension between private grief and public performance. It is an intimate portrait of grief, a film about personal devastation from the point of view of a woman who was in close proximity to absolute power, lived at the seat of power, but had only the very limited power she could wield as the wife of the slain president of the United States.
The movie starts with Jackie (Natalie Portman, formidable) talking to a journalist (Billy Crudup) and then jumps back and forth, from when Mrs. Kennedy gave a tour of the White House for the first time on TV, to the assassination of her husband, and its immediate aftermath in her life. The excellent script by Noah Oppenheim never leaves the focus on Jackie. It never moves out to depict the shock and grief that gripped the nation and the world; a wonderful choice, because it is far more powerful as an intimate portrait of a woman in a time of crisis than as a conventional account of historical events.
At the center of the maelstrom, Jackie Kennedy remains an enigma. She is stylish, perhaps frivolous and interested in throwing grand soireés; she is cultured and well-read and obsessed with history in a fetishistic way; she is petite, demurring and gracious but also steely and single-minded in her pursuit of dignity -- a style icon, but a shy one. She is fiercely loyal to the memory of a husband who she knew was disloyal to her. She is poised and controlled in public, and unhinged by grief in private. Natalie Portman pulls out all the stops, including nailing Jackie's breathy voice and her insane accent, which is no small feat. She is fantastic in this movie, capturing moment by moment the tension of living such profound devastation as a public performance. Jackie is a woman trying to rein in and give meaning to a world that is spinning out of control.
Larraín shoots Portman mostly in close-ups, leaving the grand personalities of history, including her husband, on the margins. It's a masterfully realized character study. The scene on Air Force One where Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) takes the oath of office while Jackie is visibly reeling from the shock is all you need to know about how it feels to have the earth pulled right from under your feet.
Larraín is one of the most skillful directors working today. The movie feels like we have entered a snow globe hermetically sealed from inside to witness events almost from the very skin of the woman at the center of the story. Although Jackie is an American story, conceptually it is not a typical American film. It steadfastly avoids clichéd heroics or epic sentiment. Larraín was an inspired choice to direct because his movies are always concerned with understanding and revealing power (mostly in all its ugliness). He is allergic to sentimentality but capable of profound empathy.
The only elements that feel shoehorned are the inclusion of two fictional characters, the journalist (Crudup), and a priest (the great John Hurt) to whom Jackie tells her story. I get the symbolism. After the events, Jackie talks to the press, understanding and fiercely insisting that power lies in controlling the narrative, and with the priest, she lets rip with the awful, unvarnished truth that pours out of her in her grief, which in both cases is tinted with anger. As good as they are, these conversations tend to slow the movie down. Still, Larraín knows exactly what to reveal when, and the script mirrors the experience of shock and loss remembered, in bits and pieces, so the assassination itself blossoms at precisely the right moment, not when the audience expects it, and it feels like a punch in the gut.
The extraordinary music score by Mica Levi echoes the revulsion, the shock, the unmoored feeling of the cataclysmic event. The meticulous art direction, attention to fashion, and every single prop mirror Jackie's own obsession with image, and with history and its artifacts. The perfect harmony of subject matter and flawless execution make Jackie a strangely hypnotic, fetishistic film. Jackie is obsessed with preserving history, showing the truth, and punishing chaos with dignity. Thus, Jackie comes at a very timely juncture, in which we are left to ponder what's in a presidency. As Jackie Kennedy makes clear in this movie, the presidency is as much about policy as it is about powerful symbolism and clear leadership. The first family mirrors the country it leads.