Jackie (2017) – Movie Review
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, John Hurt & Greta Gerwig
Music: Mica Levi
Release Date: January 20th 2017
“That Jackie Kennedy biopic” is a project that has been circling Hollywood and catching the attention of some of its most influential and talented names for almost a decade. Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay was originally pitched as a TV series before with Steven Spielberg attached to produce, before the project changed hands to Darren Aronofsky with Rachel Weisz to star as the two were engaged at the time. But their separation shuttered the project and Steven Spielberg started circling it again.
Long story short, we now have Pablo Larraín directing with Natalie Portman starring in a film that was meant to join movies such as ‘Miss Sloane‘ and other pieces of media that were wanting to be ahead of the curve to herald the Hillary Clinton administration, however (as we all know) that didn’t wind up happening. However, that historical context might even work in ‘Jackie‘s favour as it now could represent the collective grief of a country that lost a potential progressive administration, just like Jackie Kennedy and the U.S.A. did over 50 years ago.
The framing device of ‘Jackie‘ has Jackie Kennedy (Portman) being interviewed by a journalist (Crudup) a week after the death of her husband and the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. The interview prompts a series of flashbacks showcasing Jackie’s brief stint as First Lady, the assassination itself as well as the political aftermath as Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in and Jackie attempts to rebuild her life and also ensure that J.F.K. has a funeral that will ensure he and his legacy will never be forgotten.
The film is intentionally fragmented in its structure as Jackie Kennedy attempts to make some sort of emotional sense of the aftermath of her husband’s assassination on November 22nd 1963 to the reporter played by Billy Crudup. The reporter goes unnamed in the movie, but is allegedly based on Theodore H. White who wrote an article for Life Magazine entitled “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue” a week after his assassination. While the interview segments attempt to give the film’s structure some degree of coherency, it’s hard to see them as padding and emotionally distant from the rest of the enterprise.
These segments feel, primarily, like unnecessary additional material to hit-home how spot-on Natalie Portman’s impression of Jackie Kennedy is. And secondly, the interview scenes are meant to demonstrate Jackie’s need to control the narrative and her marriage’s public perception (she opens the interview stating that she alone will decide what is on the record) but the flashbacks do a more-than adequate job of demonstrating that as her end-goal to begin with.
The film frequently returns to the fateful day when JFK was shot in his open-top car in Dallas, Texas and each time it’s revisited it shows more detail. The first flashback is vague and obtuse but by the end we see JFK’s head blown-open with startling, gruesome detail, as if Jackie is remembering it more clearly after the initial shock of the event. It’s with that distance, once she tries to outwardly compose herself to the world, that she insist the new Johnson administration give JFK a massive, public and televised funeral in the streets of Washington. JFK wasn’t able to complete his goals as President, but Jackie doesn’t want her husband to be remembered as a man with no legacy.
The way ‘Jackie‘ portrays…Jackie…is that she was the first media-savvy First Lady as she welcomed television cameras into the White House to give viewers at home a guided tour during the extensive renovations that were being undertaken in the Oval Office at the time. Being prompted off-camera to smile all the time, Jackie’s entire persona is portrayed by Portman through a performance of Jackie giving a performance as well as Jackie’s media presense through these broadcasts allowing her to become an avatar for America’s collective grief.
‘Jackie‘ is ultimately a story about astonishing grief being broadcast on a worldwide stage as Jackie has to not only get over her husband’s murder but oversee the transition between the Kennedy’s to the Johnson’s as her and her family have to pack up their belongings and leave the White House. One highlight of the movie has Jackie raiding her wardrobe before packing up her clothes so she can try them on one last time whilst popping pills, getting drunk and blasting out the soundtrack from the musical “Camelot”. As the space is vacant she attempts to fill the massive White House with life before she leaves and “For one brief, shining moment, there was a Camelot”.
Holding it all together is Natalie Portman whose impression and mannerisms are spot-on, but that’s only part of the performance as she goes through dozens of different Jackie-personas over the course of the film. We have on-camera Jackie, grieving Jackie, paternal Jackie, betrayed Jackie due to her husband’s infidelity and also a desperate Jackie who tries futilely to save her husband’s life in the car by picking up his brain-matter and trying to put it back in his head. The costuming (from Madeline Fontaine) goes far to give Portman a noticeable presense on-screen whether she’s being talked over by a dozen men trying to figure out what to do next and also on her own in the White House still wearing her pink coat, stained by her husband’s blood, wandering the halls of a home representing a life she’ll never get to live.
Thematically, the film’s whole is better than the sum of its parts with an awful lot of dialogue but nothing particularly memorable on a textual level. ‘Jackie‘ is carried by its tone, its themes, atmosphere and lead performance as there isn’t much to write home about from the supporting cast other than Peter Sarsgaard doing a great Bobby Kennedy impression. There’s a lot of sequences that seem at home on the “Hallmark” channel as opposed to a dour exploration of grief that ‘Jackie‘ strives to be, like a scene where Jackie and Bobby wistfully talk about what could have been, such as civil rights and the space program. There’s also another narrative strand with Jackie seeking guidance from a Catholic Priest played by John Hurt in his final on-screen performance and while it being his last film role adds some extra-pathos to the segments, out of that context it feels like a sub-plot that could have wound-up on the cutting room floor. No disrespect to Hurt who is, as he always was, great in the role.
“There comes a time in man’s search for meaning when one realises that there are no answers. And when you come to that horrible, unavoidable realisation, you accept it or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching. I have lived a blessed life. And yet every night, when I climb into bed, turn off the lights, and stare in to the dark, I wonder, is this all there is?” – The Priest
The film’s kaleidoscopic narrative structure and its tone almost present the film as a ghost story, not necessarily literal ghosts but fragments of a life never lived and a White House that, through the eyes of Jackie, is now tainted by death and the shattering of her family. ‘Jackie‘ is a mood-piece of a movie in the guise of a character-driven drama which sets it apart from many other Kennedy-biopics and allows for a substantial peak behind the curtain of that harrowing week in politics.
This is exemplified by a droning, unnerving score by Mica Levi whose frequent use of bass whilst Jackie is on-screen gives the feeling of a soul drowning in grief. The score may be over-bearing and rather repetitive at points, but it still prompts a rather visceral reaction. The Super 16mm cinematography (in a 1:66:1 aspect ratio) from lenser Stéphane Fontaine gives the film a slight haze and a dreamlike quality and the frequent use of close-ups and full-frontal shots gives the film a startling intimacy. Shout-out to the great production design recreating the 1960s and the brilliant make-up, hairstyling and costume design.
‘Jackie‘ is a heavy-handed, slightly over-indulgent biopic that seems primarily engineered to get Natalie Portman some awards, but it’s over-bearing tone, atmosphere and lead performance makes it a product where its whole is more substantial than the individual aspects that occupy the 16mm film stock. It’s filled with great segments whilst interspersed with a lot of extraneous dialogue sequences but it’s still incredibly compelling viewing due to its omnipresent themes of loss, heartache and regret. Portman is terrific as is the production values and ‘Jackie‘ is an affectionate and harrowing look back at one of the most sorrowful weeks of American history.
I give ‘Jackie‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 10th Jan 18