One could expect a lot or nothing when walking into the theater to see Jackie (2016). Will it be bland Oscar bait like J. Edgar (2011) , entertaining and emotional like The Imitation Game (2014), or a new masterpiece to be spoken in the same sentence as Lawrence of Arabia (1962)? Having made this journey recently, I think that the best answer to this is all of the above (sort of).
Jackie (2016) obviously follows former first lady Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman, before, during, and after the events of the infamous assassination of her husband. The story is told non-linearly, somewhat similar to The Imitation Game (2014), with everything being framed around the Life magazine interview with Jackie conducted by Theodore White a week after the fateful day. Immediately we are not given the picture of Jackie Kennedy that people have come to think of her by. We see her emotionally distraught, sarcastic, controlling, and above all else honest. Her fashionable persona was more or less self-crafted, fueled by the need to honor the prestige of her husband’s position and preserve his legacy in the annals of American history.
Without a doubt the non-linear approach was a good decision. Telling a story like this in a traditional beginning-middle-end manner would have been too thematically obvious and too emotionally grueling. It would’ve been rough sitting through this movie knowing when the assassination was going to happen and waiting for it, then suffering through the intense sorrow and emotional fallout afterwards. Instead, scenes are thoughtfully and carefully arranged so we are given time to breathe and slow down in between scenes of Natalie Portman crying and arguing with Bob Kennedy and Johnson’s staff members while still focusing on interesting dramatic moments. This is effectively done by cutting back to the framing device of the interview and using flashbacks. We are still properly treated to the scenes one would expect to see in a Jackie Kennedy biopic like the televised white house tour and a couple of their lavish parties, but they’re used to starkly contrast her world before and after her husband’s death and firmly establish character traits. Sure, people would’ve been fine with seeing these moments on film in any context or capacity, but by using them sparingly in key moments their self-importance isn’t overinflated like in other historical dramas.
However, this kind of structural approach doesn’t completely serve the film’s best interests. Since moments that are cut one after the other aren’t sequential in the linear historical timeline, the already dialogue heavy movie tries to connect these seemingly unrelated scenes through discussion that is relevant to the emotional moment that they’re needed in. Jackie will discuss JFK’s funeral with one character and then having an almost identical conversation about the funeral with another character in a completely different space and time. Even with the stellar acting and the beautiful cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine, some scenes end up blending together because of a trap I often scoff at with dialogue being very “about itself” and characters speaking poetically about the nature of presidential legacy and how it relates to JFK and Jackie by association and yadda yadda yadda. I had to force myself to recall what scene I had just watched a few times due to the brevity of these moments not allowing me to fully process if any of the unrealistic dialogue mattered to any ultimate capacity.
What saves these moments from dulling the movie completely is Natalie Portman. Whenever anyone sees an A-lister in the title role of a historical drama during awards season, everyone is going to want to know how good their performance is. I had assumed Portman would’ve been good even not having seen her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan (2010), but she exceeds any and all expectations. It’s honestly one of the most compelling and emotionally complex performances I’ve seen from an actor this year, and it alone makes seeing Jackie (2016) worth it. But behind every great actor is the director and the dark horse director behind this film, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, makes his mark. Jackie (2016) is Larraín’s first English language film, and even though he was self-described as not being partial to biopics his oeuvre has previously shown strong artistic sensibilities in defining and analyzing the Chilean national identity. Choosing a foreign director with a background in politically charged films was nothing short of a great decision. I can’t help but wonder the bias that would’ve been had if an American filmmaker had done this movie. Perhaps the film would’ve been more cynical towards Jackie Kennedy’s materialistic tendencies or pushed the envelope a little more in showing the strains in the relationship between JFK and Jackie. These are touched upon only slightly.
The film is very thematically focused and as a result the story and characters are as well (thanks in no small part to screenwriter Noah Oppenheim). None of the characters are shown in any fully glorifying light, but any further cynicism is left up to the audience to infer. I was almost taken aback by my lack of total investment in what was happening at times because Jackie (2016) never tells you how to feel. This movie has a thesis and it makes its points in a beautifully filmic way, with writing, directing, editing, and acting coming together in a realistc way to where history isn’t taken to the cleaners, but given a proper lens to be looked at through, with the very strong exception of a scene towards the end of the film where there’s a big hair in the top left corner of the screen.