As far as introductions go, the opening seconds to Jackie are just about perfect. Director Pablo Larraín’s beautiful shot composition shows us this will not be a typical biopic. Mica Levi’s bone chilling score immediately informs the audience the type of beautiful tragedy we are about to go through. Lastly, Natalie Portman’s first sentence in the film cues us into a performance that, while historically accurate, is immediately captivating as we watch a woman come to terms with her place in this world.
There are many different ways one could tackle a movie about the former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. You could tell a standard cradle-to-death story, showing Jackie’s life leading up to her husband’s assassination. You could tell a troubled love story, focusing on how the First Lady pushed through her husband’s various sexual exploits. You could make Jackie a co-lead, telling a standard political drama, showing how JFK’s assassination opened the door for President Johnson to pass various legislation. While all of these stories could make fine movies, they all have a singular problem: Jackie Kennedy is demoted to being a woman whose life and meaning is defined by the men around her. Jackie is not telling that story.
Instead, Jackie focuses in on three separate “timelines” if you will. First, various flashbacks to well-known historical moments, such as her televised tour of the White House. Second, the immediate days following her husband’s assassination, detailing her grief and her plans for legacy. Third, her conversation with journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) as she displays a more articulated form of grief.
Yes, the film gives some cool dramatized versions of historical images (i.e. the swearing in of LBJ while Jackie has the former President’s blood on her); and yes, JFK, LBJ and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) are all present, with the actors emulating their real life counterparts. But Jackie is not focused on retelling history. Jackie has a very central, if not awkward message: a woman, hungry for a legacy, actually utilizes a tragedy in order to propel her make sure her family has a place in history.
Everything in the movie works towards the goal of showing how a political figure can show public strength while also having deep insecurities about their place in the world. Portman is able to play Kennedy in these different ways. In some scenes, whether it be by herself with the bottle or in a field with her priest, she shows true despair at the horror that has happened to her. In other scenes she shows us the Kennedy that made sure the family name would be revered, steamrolling any political aid who got in the way.
Portman’s performance is mesmerizing through and through and it is only enhanced by the amazing score. I’ve rarely seen a film in which the story’s theme is communicated via music like it is here. Again, this movie’s message is awkward, it is somewhat uncomfortable seeing a woman push for power when there should be more grieving. The score is just as uncomfortable and that is a compliment. At points there is a sense of beauty, a film score like we are used to, but then there are slides and modulations that almost feel out of tune, but it completely works in communicating the movie’s message.
Though Portman and the score are top notch, overall the movie leaves a little to be desired. As with many movies in this genre, emulating real life doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying three-act structure. While they were able to give this Jackie some real character that may or may not have been present in real life, there are chunks of the movie in which we simply go through historical moments. A little too slow for my taste, it would have been nice if the filmmakers stayed laser focused on the story they wanted to tell instead of meandering in various historical recreations.
Even with the meandering, Portman is alone worth a viewing of Jackie. Seeing an outsider (Larraín is Chilean) direct a film about one of our most famous First Ladies brings a real freshness to what could have been a by-the-numbers biopic. Jackie is a good movie with a dynamite performance, and we all owe it to ourselves to view a woman’s struggle for political power, especially in today’s day and age.