WBEZ’s “This American Life” host Ira Glass says that the three key elements of a good story are action, reflection and stakes. There are few lives more envied and mythicized by the American people, few whose most action-packed moment is so ingrained in their consciousnesses, than that of Jacqueline Kennedy. Pablo Larraín’s biopic Jackie, spanning the days after her husband’s assassination, both buys into and strips Jackie of her skillful apotheosis through copious reflection gleaned from Theodore White’s interview with her in Life.
With the fresh wounds of election season stinging in the winter wind and an iconic family leaving the White House, getting reaquainted with the Kennedys is as bitter and cold as Larraín’s direction. King Arthur is dead, Camelot burned to the ground.
America knows the Kennedys — at least one Kennedy has held office in every year between 1947 and 2011, and then from 2013 until now. That’s more than a quarter of the time that America has been, well, America. Prominence leads to an outsider understanding, which is what Natalie Portman’s definitive performance shares. She’s an extension of the American people, an ambitious member whose marriage only tied her closer to legend.
Jackie opens a week after the president’s assassination at Dealey Plaza. The structure, cluttered and jumbled like memories often are, centers around the demands of a journalist, a priest and a funeral. Portman’s strength manifests in warmth, in brittleness, in strategy and glamour, as she swats the myriad political gadflies trying to sway the politics of death with their stings. Will the funeral be flashy? What will that say to the people? How will that affect our memory of JFK?
Few movies allow their actresses such power through decoration and PR, which Jackie uses to make her mark on the White House and thus history. When she tours CBS News through her renovations and acquisitions, her palpable pride is the historicized empowerment of the 50s and 60s housewife.
This and the other most powerful scenes are those well-told to the American people, through the Zapruder footage and the assimilation of history into pop culture, but usurped by the perspective of an unsuspecting wife. Suspense springs from the most famous and studied political assassination of the last hundred years, as Larraín successfully embodies Jackie’s vantage during a jarringly brutal reenactment.
Her shaken, ranting hindsight is all the more noble because it’s clear that she couldn’t have done more, with her refusal to change from her gory dress all the more striking and angering. Following, queasily close, as Jackie haunts the empty White House, the camera treats the wide halls as a judgmental character — the portraits of former presidents watching their successors. It may be expansive and beautiful, but it’s now a maudlin prison. Each room holds a memory of her hemorrhaging family.
Jackie thrives as a planner, meticulously creating a legacy from grandiose beauty as her husband’s politics were cut short. Even if they couldn’t change the world like they wanted, she could put forth the image they’d planned to earn. In this way, Portman plays a woman comfortable being an actor, carefully constructing personae — her own and that of her husband. When other political players (like Peter Sarsgaard’s uncanny Robert F. Kennedy or Beth Grant’s Lady Bird Johnson) try to push her, they hit the steel beneath the silk.
Portman’s vivid portrayal is the film’s greatest strength, coasting through woebegone New England accents and the script’s on-the-nose airing of themes in the final act. The film’s inner battle, made external thanks to the same priest that protagonists have been confessing to since the schism, is best when quiet and personal, when eerie and lonesome. A Great Gatsby-like scene of dress-up as grief is both pathetic and moving. Jackie is more relatable alone among her dresses.
The framing devices are as weak as the film’s indecisive ending, partitioning Portman’s performance for the sake of overcompensatory clarity. Trusting a brilliant performance to tell not just a story, but the consequences of your story, makes a film like Jackie closer to Psycho, whose conclusion all but speaks directly to the camera and fails to trust Anthony Perkins. Yet, to follow the formula of “This American Life,” the world knows the action and the stakes. Now, thanks to Natalie Portman, it knows the reflection.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.