Natalie Portman stars as Jackie Kennedy Onassis, first lady and wife to John F Kennedy, in the days before and after the president’s assassination. Lawrence reviews.
In the late November of 1963, a week after witnessing the violent assassination of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy sat down with journalist Theodore H. White at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port to be interviewed for the Life Magazine article they styled as the “epilogue” to John F. Kennedy, in what Jacqueline hopes will be the salvation of her husband’s legacy. Thus begins the opening scene of Jackie, a film that is just as much about grief as it is legacy. Natalie Portman takes the role of the eponymous “Jackie”, with Billy Crudup portraying White.
The interview is a useful structural device; it allows us to leap back and forth through the events as White probes Jackie on her memory of what happened; it also frees the characters from adhering too strictly to the article itself, Jackie can share whatever feeling or memory she likes and retract it as simply off-the-record. Indeed, how much of her attempts to influence history is for her husband’s benefit or to sooth her own fragile ego is left to the audience to decide.
There is no overarching plot in the traditional sense, the movie encompasses Jacqueline Kennedy’s emotional arc following the assassination and leading up to her husband’s state funeral, with the burial acting both as a dénouement and as a source of friction, as Jackie (who is clearly not in a sound state of mind) frequently conflicts with security staff and her immediate circle of friends and family. Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of Jackie is the perilous tightrope it walks regarding Jacqueline herself. A portrayal equal parts pitiful and prideful, bitter and naïve, vain and fragile. To tip one way or the other would invite either indulgent misty-eyed sentimentality or appalling tactlessness but the script maintains a rock solid even-hand.
The film neatly sidesteps the conspiracy issue; events are depicted (almost) entirely from Jacqueline’s perspective. The majority of the film takes place before the Warren Commission is even established, and Jackie was not privy to its details anyway. Similarly, Robert Kennedy’s assassination is not touched upon, despite his prominence in the film. Ultimately this is a wise call; as insensitive as it may sound, it would only serve as an unnecessary complication to the structure of the movie, as well as one tragedy too many in what is already an especially sombre film.
There are some serious acting chops on display here. Natalie Portman takes the reins on this role and never lets it go, no doubt securing her Oscar Nomination; you can tell the academy will eat this movie right up. Peter Sarsgaard puts on an equally strong showing as Robert Kennedy, who even gets a good old fashioned monologue all to himself. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with a surprise John Hurt appearance, to whom Jacqueline turns when in need of spiritual advice.
The score was composed by Mica Levi, and it is certainly off-kilter, after a pleasantly unpleasant kind of fashion. In truth, it seems more the soundtrack to a psychological thriller than a political biopic, with lots of unhinged strings to betray Jacqueline’s underlying trauma. It creates this uneasy sensation that at times almost seems distracting, though it takes a backseat as Jackie gradually draws closer to the closure she needs.
Jackie makes use of both original footage and archived historical footage; the historical footage was filmed in that distinctive grainy 8mm of the time, while most of the original footage is captured in the modern 35mm. Whenever the characters step out to meet the populace (from Air Force One, for instance), the transition to historical footage signifies a transition of the characters from privacy into the public eye. There’s even some original footage stylistically altered to match the vintage filming. It’s a pleasingly subtle way of marking the change from the character’s private behaviour to their public mask, and these clever techniques are used to instil a strong underlying sense of authenticity.
In summary: smart script, smart camerawork, and a talented cast acting like they have something to prove. In terms of criticism all I can say is that for all its firm substance it’s a little dry on style. General audiences may find it a little morose for their tastes; there is a sense of closure to finish with, but viewers with long memories may find their foreknowledge scuppering any attempts at positivity.