Come the ‘awards season’ phase in every cinematic year, film fans are likely to find at least one historical biopic vying for attention. These types of movies often tend to be the easiest option for awards recognition, and yet simultaneously among the most difficult for me to get in any way excited about. While often these are stale movies that expect to gain appreciation solely because of their subjects’ lives rather than their actual cinematic merit, there’s occasionally one that attempts to do something more innovative with the genre than just run through a person’s life. In 2015 the wonderful Love & Mercy turned out to be one of the best movies of the year for example, and I’m pleased to report now that Jackie, a nominal biopic of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is very much in the same camp.
This is in fact the kind of biopic that, similarly to Hitchcock or Lincoln, I would hesitate to even call a biopic at all. It seeks to give us a portrait of its subject by focusing squarely on a short, crucial period in their life, in this case the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Chilean director Pablo Larraín (No) even then doesn’t present a chronological recreation of the events, instead making a kaleidoscopic collage that jumps back and forth between several timelines within a short period.
On the whole, this decision works well for the film, with the fractured narrative reflecting the thoughts that must surely have been going through the grieving woman’s mind. It alternates between the immediate time preceding and the aftermath of the shooting, her working through the plans for his state funeral, her giving an interview to a reporter a short while later, and a recreation of a White House tour she hosted for television prior to the assassination. This unconventional structure for such a movie also in some ways mirrors the subject matter; showing us a mostly unfamiliar angle to a very familiar story.
The film is fully committed to sticking with Jackie’s perspective, having her appear in almost every shot of the film, we see her having to deal with the difficulty of processing the outcome of this tragedy both personally and publically, ranging from having to research and plan the route for a state funeral procession to informing her young children that their father won’t be coming back. The film succeeds in capturing her in these two frames of mind where she is having to maintain a certain level of image for the people she is talking with, and also when she is alone in the presidential house she will soon been required to leave. Larraín, often filming in close-ups, gives us some arresting visuals; a moment when a devastated, crying Jackie must wipe her dead husband’s blood from her face before being seen again is particularly powerful. The unusual atmosphere of the film is similarly enhanced by a soundtrack primarily made up discordant strings from Under the Skin composer Mica Levi.
Jackie makes a sensible decision to keep JFK himself at the sidelines but not off-screen completely. As the film began I was concerned it would operate under the assumption that everyone was fully familiar with JFK and the circumstances of his death, which might have worked, but overall I think Jackie chose a superior option by revisiting the assassination several times but holding off on the actual moment of death until near the end of the film. Despite knowing exactly how it happens it still comes as a shock, and is necessary to remind you of the horror Jacqueline Kennedy must have felt sitting right next to him in the car, which in turn adds to the film’s overall power.
What doesn’t quite work so well is Jackie’s framing device, as I mentioned earlier part of the film involves her giving an interview to a reporter (Billy Crudup) a month or so after the assassination from her home in New England. The film opens with this and soon we hear Jackie tell him that she will personally be editing the piece to remove any information she doesn’t want released to the public. That interesting aspect is really the only purpose these scenes serve though, and when the film repeatedly cuts back to them throughout they add little and can be distracting.
On the whole though, the film is held together by Natalie Portman’s incredible central performance. She has clearly meticulously researched into recreating Jacqueline Kennedy’s distinctive voice and mannerisms that initially sound a little surprising coming from a familiar actress like Portman but you soon forget that as she vanishes into the challenging role, managing to convey someone who themselves was in a way putting on a performance for the public. She was recently Oscar-nominated and this stands up with Black Swan as arguably her best work yet (incidentally, Jackie is produced by Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky).
Jackie is a film that takes what could have been a standard Oscar-bait subject and treats it as substance for a far more experimental art movie. Some people may find its unconventional structure a little tougher to connect with, but it succeeds as a powerful drama of one woman’s struggle, and shines a light on a side to one of the most famous news stories of the 20th Century that many people, myself included, may well have never really thought about much before.