At one point in Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” the titular First Lady discusses funeral plans for her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, with Jack Valenti. She subtly usurps the procession plans for JFK’s casket as Valenti grows increasingly frustrated at the First Lady before asking why she insists on walking in the street with her husband’s casket. Jackie simply replies “I’m just doing my job.”
Unlike any biopic I’ve ever seen, “Jackie” follows an experimental structure to better conceptualize Jackie Kennedy’s state of mind. How could that mindset be anything other than haphazard? A husband, father, President. The idea of JFK fulfilled a wide-spanning tapestry of the American dream. All Jackie wanted was to honor his memory.
“Jackie” is an intimate film. The camera is constantly fixated with compressed space between the First Lady and the people she comes across in the week after JFK was assassinated in 1963. Use of ongoing close-ups leaves the unspooling narrative feeling raw and candid. Nothing is held back from us.
Intercutting segments serve as unconventional bookends: one of the Life magazine interview a week after the assassination and another of a TV special during Jackie’s first year in the White House. Director Pablo Larraín uses these interconnecting bookends to exemplify the idea of how personas are established for what is essentially American royalty. We get a full grasp on the range of Jackie’s own persona. She was not the same person in front of the camera as she was in private.
Natalie Portman’s performance is a triumph. Although she bears minimal resemblance, Portman naturally hums the dialect of Jackie Kennedy. Her presence is simultaneously radiant and ethereal as we witness the various faces worn by the First Lady to suit public and private needs. At first glance, Portman’s iteration of Jackie feels fragile in light of tragedy. Her voice breaks and she’s soft-spoken. Once Portman’s performance settles into the dialogue that we realize it’s another facade. Portman and the script use Jackie’s emotions as a distraction for one hand, her wit and quick thinking as weapons in another. It’s a magnificent balancing act accomplished by writer Noah Oppenheim, whose other main credits include “The Maze Runner” and “Allegiance.”
There’s a grainy texture to the story of Jackie’s anguish and not just because it was shot on 16mm. Larraín utilizes the grain almost like a dreary fog, overwhelming every frame of the film. It’s not quite a fever dream as much as it is a living nightmare.
Mica Levi’s score accentuates the grief filled narrative. At times the score sounds as if the haunting chords of Levi’s work in “Under the Skin” poured over. The music in “Under the Skin” transcends humanity, developing into a meditation on isolation and longing, whereas the music in “Jackie” follows suit and aggressively pushes forward the notion of identity and further loneliness. At time’s It’s uncomfortable to watch and listen to, almost as if the solemn nature of the film is too much to take in all at once.
It’s a scarily accurate study on death and how one deals with loss. It also just happens to be about the aftermath of one of our nation’s greatest tragedies.
Whether or not a biopic is “true to life,” what’s important is that everyone involved makes a good film first and foremost. Biographical films are often an easy shoehorn in for the upcoming award season. Larraín and company have created a legitimate masterwork. Any awards that come its way will be well deserved.