From Director Pablo Larraín and Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim comes Jackie, a portrait of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the days following President Kennedy’s assassination. As a biopic that is not a traditional biopic, does the film succeed?
On November 22, 1963, America was forever changed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). However, while a nation mourned, an entirely different drama was playing out for First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman). Jackie struggled with not only the loss of her husband, leaving her a single mother to John (Aiden & Brody Weinberg) and Caroline (Sunnie Pelant), but also the abrupt change of going from First Lady in the White House to widow with no home to call her own. She was also concerned with securing JFK’s legacy and making sure that he was remembered as a great president and not just an assassinated president. To that end, the film is structured around an interview that Jackie gave to Life Magazine’s Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) shortly after the assassination, though his character is never named in the film. As Jackie talks with White and essentially crafts the myth of the Kennedy presidency as Camelot, we see her have existential crises as she speaks with a priest (John Hurt), battles with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jack Valenti (Max Casella) about JFK’s funeral and procession, and find comfort with painter, family friend, and White House decorator Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant) and her childhood friend and White House Social Secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). All of these scenes are juxtaposed against Jackie’s televised Tour of the White House from 1962 and the events of that fateful day in Dallas, Texas in 1963.
Larraín’s film is an interesting case of a biopic that is not really a biopic. We don’t really see much of Jackie’s life aside from these few days on and around the assassination. Yet, we get a definite sense of the woman she was. She was almost seen as a silly little girl by many around her, but in those trying days, she showed that she was indeed a powerful woman and one who had her own ideas about how the Kennedy legacy would be shaped. She was a caring mother, who wanted to shield her children as much from harm as she could, but she was also a woman—as Larraín shows us—barely holding onto her sanity as she dealt with the unexpected loss and disappearance of security. Larraín’s approach feels very arthouse with his use of extreme close-ups to detail many of the conversations and get right to the heart of the emotion going on within Jackie herself. Some audiences may be put off by the constant jumping back and forth through the timeline that Larrain and Oppenheim employ. I only found it disconcerting in one instance, in Jackie’s discussions with the priest. I wasn’t sure when those were taking place, though it is made abundantly clear by the end of the film. However, these time shifts didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the film and its quality is anchored by the stellar performance of the cast, especially Natalie Portman as Jackie.
It’s amazing that I’ve gone this long without talking about Portman’s transformative performance as Jackie Kennedy, but it was important to establish that while her performance is indeed the best part of the film, I did enjoy the film beyond that performance. Portman is, quite simply, phenomenal in Jackie. She perfectly captures Jackie’s distinctive voice, but also delivers on the difficult emotions that were needed to completely sell this film. Two scenes in particular really got to me: the first is when we see Jackie, alone in the Air Force One bathroom, processing exactly what had happened in Dallas. You can see Portman’s skill as she slowly brings Jackie out of shock and into the cold, hard reality of life without Jack. The second scene was when she had to deliver the news of JFK’s passing to the children. She handles the scene with a deft touch as she explains to these young children why Daddy will never be coming home. I believe her performance here makes her the frontrunner for Best Actress at next year’s Oscars. The other performances are also great from Sarsgaard’s regretful Bobby Kennedy to Gerwig and Grant’s quiet moments with Portman. Just a great job by a fantastic cast. Phillipson doesn’t have much to do here, clearly, but his resemblance to JFK is almost eerie. I also enjoyed Beth Grant and John Carroll Lynch as Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson. While Jackie says that the Johnsons were kind to her, that isn’t completely shown in their scenes together, which may put off some historians.
Overall, while Pablo Larraín’s style may not be for everyone, you should definitely see Jackie for Natalie Portman’s stunning performance by itself. The film rests fully on her capable shoulders and she powers it to be not only a great performance, but one of the year’s best films.