Directed by Pablo Larrain
Written by Noah Oppenheim
Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, and Max Castella
Runtime: 99 minutes
Sometimes, a biopic (bio-pic, not bi-opic) sets out to just tell a story that more often than not most people don’t know about, and other times it will try to get at the root of a person, to try to understand that person’s motivations to do what they did to warrant being famous enough for a movie to be made about them. More rarely, a biopic tries to capture a moment in time and instead of recount the events as history would recount them, it tries to find the emotions of the moment and make them more important than the event itself. Jackie is just such a picture, artfully exploring the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination through his widow Jackie Kennedy’s eyes and emotions.
Natalie Portman gives a tour-de-force performance as the former First Lady as she tries to cement her husband’s legacy after his brutal murder in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. The film takes place in the aftermath of that tragic event and focuses on Jackie’s emotional instability as well as her fight to keep herself composed for her children and the nation, framed by an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup), to whom she is recounting that fateful day and the week after (the interview is only one week out from the assassination). After advising the journalist (who is never named) that she will be editing the conversation, as well as advising him on what he can write down and what he can’t, in an effort to make this her story of what happened without any outside editorializing. She recounts many instances, such as dust-ups concerning the funeral with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), now-President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and his incoming Secret Service chief Jack Valenti (Max Castella) as well as more tender moments with her aid Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig).
Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, whose previous screenplays were adaptations of Young Adult novels The Maze Runner and Allegiant (the third in the Divergent series), crafts a complex and nuanced script for Jackie. Interestingly, this was his first screenplay, written back in 2010 and put on the Hollywood Blacklist, a list of the best unproduced screenplays submitted that year (which is kind of a backhanded compliment, because it pretty much means the script is too good to get made and many of the screenplays put on that list take years to get produced, if they ever do). Oppenheim makes the choice to avoid a linear timeline of events and opts instead to fragment scenes in favor of emotion instead of chronology. What results is a more emotionally true if not necessarily factually so.
Director Pablo Larrain (who also directed Neruda due out later this month, as well as No from 2012) is very careful with his framing, utilizing a lot of negative space to emphasize how alone Jackie is in her sorrow, despite being surrounded by fellow mourners. His focus is always on Jackie, centralizing her in every scene. Larrain also uses the cross-cutting to great effect, extending one scene into another, keeping the emotional strain throughout even if the scene changes. Cutting out of sequence can get jarring, but he and editor Sebastián Sepúlveda manage to make everything flow without creating confusion. They edit to the emotional rhythm of Jackie and also indicate through these jumps how scattered and fragmented her thoughts are while talking to the journalist.
Portman hasn’t delivered a performance of this caliber since Black Swan in 2010, the film that finally netted her an Oscar. It should come as no surprise, then, that Black Swan writer and director Darren Aronofsky was originally attached to direct and stayed on to produce, and he is likely a big reason Portman was drawn to the project. She is strong and vulnerable at the drop of a hat, sometimes simultaneously. There are sequences that are completely heartbreaking simply by how she performs them, namely when she finally showers her husband’s blood out of her hair and when she is roaming the East Wing of the White House, drinking and smoking, in different dresses while looking at pictures and just remembering JFK. Portman takes the larger-than-life figure of Jacqueline Kennedy and brings her down to earth, showing the struggle she had arranging the funeral for a man who was not just her husband, but the President of the United States. Sarsgaard, Crudup, Hurt and Gerwig all do yeoman’s work too, with Hurt a real stand-out in what could have been a typical and kind of throw-away role as the priest she confides in. Gerwig, as good as she is as the supportive friend and aid, is kind of wasted in a small role that that doesn’t particularly do justice to her talents, but that’s a minor quibble.
Jackie is like nothing I’ve ever seen, wholly unique in its perspective and approach to a topic that has never really been touched upon before. We’ve seen all manner of films and television specials about JFK’s assassination, as well as Lincoln, but really never anything that discusses the people left in the wake of the tragedies, particularly the spouses (Jackie mentions Mary Todd Lincoln’s fate to Bobby in the Lincoln Bedroom in a particularly heartrending scene). Jackie is filled with unique directorial choices, surprising editing, a masterful and sparse score by Mica Levi, and a central performance that is nothing more than remarkable. Jackie stands as one of the best films of the year.