Finding the right focus and exploring a character in interesting ways is what I enjoy when it comes to biopics. Jackie has the right idea. This is not a film about the life of Jackie Kennedy. It also doesn’t place her in a supporting role, so we can follow someone else around and observe her from afar. What this film does is much more effective. Jackie holds focus on the time surrounding the worst day of her life and what her state of mind was. The result is a dreamy, yet engaging feature.
Natalie Portman stars as Jackie and you can surmise that she fits the part. Most of these biopics know who to cast in their lead roles, so it is not surprising to see another fitting choice. More importantly, however, is seeing just how well the actress balances her performance to make it feel authentic, but not slip into a complete impersonation. That’s always an important quality for these kinds of film, as we are seeing a depiction or reality, as opposed to the real thing. It is one thing to look or sound like the person in question, but another to really capture a certain essence that is being highlighted for the sake of a film.
Providing that essence is what is essential for Jackie. The film places its emphasis on what Jackie is going through on an emotional level. There is some cleverness to the film’s structure, as its framing device depicts Jackie’s meeting with Life magazine’s Theodore H. White (portrayed by Billy Crudup) a week after her husband’s death. This eight-and-a-half-hour interview was one of a very few times Jackie opened up publicly about her thoughts on the assassination and the Kennedy legacy. The film uses this as a way to jump around in time. There is a buildup of sorts to showing us the funeral procession, but Jackie is more an examination of the mind.
As mentioned, this approach is effective. Rather than a careful and chronological ordering of events that simply reminds people of history, Jackie is keeps its title’s subject well in mind. The Oscar-nominated Chilean director Pablo Larrain is making his English-language debut with this film and combining his cinematic eye with a script by Noah Oppenheim, the film does well to position itself around what Jackie is personally going through. This is not just a film about seeing the First Lady sulking. Here we see Jackie’s anger, frustration, curiosity and love (among other feelings) come out and get explored throughout the film.
This also means seeing Jackie interact with others directly involved in her life. Peter Sarsgaard turns in effective supporting work as Robert F. Kennedy. The care he has for both the loss of his brother and protecting Jackie is made quite clear. Greta Gerwig turns up as Nancy Tuckerman, the White House Social Secretary and one person who Jackie can rely on to help her smile. Character actors John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant turn up as Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and they, along with others, do enough to fill out the required parts without overshadowing Jackie.
For all the recreation work done to show 1963 as it was, little gets in the way of making sure we keep following along with Jackie. A good handle on the editing and framing does well to support this. The film even has a good number of tracking shots that sit close behind Jackie as she wanders through an ever-changing White House. Also not hurting is the score by Under the Skin’s Mica Levi, which further helps to highlight the film’s focus on a state of mind.
I’m aware Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) was originally going to direct this film and I can’t help but notice how similar a feel this film has to his style. However, I would also note some qualities, such as a level of intimacy, that make Jackie feel similar to the work of Terrence Malick (albeit with a lot more dialogue). Larrain’s direction may or may not be worthy of such esteemed praise, but this film does portray a complex character study through the lens of a visually affecting biopic.
Another concept worth mentioning is the film’s way of discussing the impact of the Kennedy’s. It comes up a few times, notably when Robert Kennedy’s frustration with the events have him questioning what that administration was able to accomplish. I find it fitting that their impact informs how I’ve written this review so far, as directly stating “JFK assassination” has felt unnecessary. It is not unimportant by any means, but throwing around the name Jackie within this context has made me feel anyone knows what I’m getting at.
The film wisely understands this too. Jackie is willing to discuss the day in question to a point, but not without making it clear that the story she is telling is more rewarding compared to grisly details of her husband getting shot in the head. This is how Portman continues to shine as well. Many books have been written about who Jackie was and while this may or may not be the definitive actor’s portrayal of her, Portman commits to taking on a few different ways of showing who Jackie was, depending on what company she is with.
At just over 90 minutes (without credits), Jackie delivers on examining a character’s headspace during the time of a traumatic event without overdoing it. While the film works as an exploration of grief, it is also worth noting the film’s effort to provide a glimpse of the “Camelot” that was the JFK administration and how it came to an end. It’s quite impressive to watch unfold and the assured craft seen from both filmmakers and in performers does plenty to offset what is seen too often in other biopics. That seems good enough for an icon like Jackie Kennedy.