The decision to make Jackie was a risky one. Millions of people have strongly engrained beliefs of that famous first lady, while millions more have little to no connection at all to her or what happened on November 22, 1963. But the topic of Camelot and Kennedy royalty cannot be visited enough, and so we have the film Jackie. Noah Oppenheim wrote the detailed script and a talented filmmaker from Chile, Pablo Larraín, who had no first hand experience with that slice of history was asked to direct.
Making a film is a collaborative process. Hundreds of talented people work to tell the story through their own craft. No different here, but this film truly belongs to Mr. Oppenheim, Mr. Larraín and Natalie Portman.
This is not a biopic. It’s the story of a mother. A mother of two children who also became the mother of a mourning country, thrust into that role by the untimely death of her husband and President of the United States. When you lose a president in office you also lose, in a way, a father.
The script is often highly prescriptive, providing not only exceptional dialogue but also a blueprint for the director in the way of visuals, editing and at times even the sounds.
The directing decisions Mr. Larraín makes are frequently up close and more than you may be prepared for by the last reel. We see Jackie filmed head on, face filling the frame. She is confronting the tragedy and doesn’t blink. Only in the presence of her trusted assistant does she drop her guard, a signal that she is looking for a reassuring word or helpful guidance. The filmmakers are dealing with emotional, global history as the entire picture takes place in the days following the assassination. No matter how Mr. Larraín decides to use his camera, it’s Ms. Portman who ultimately forges the feel.
Ms. Portman obviously poured herself into research to prepare for this challenging role. I was most struck by how she used her voice and accent to communicate the emotional toll that Jackie must have been feeling. She takes control of the funeral arrangements, modeling it after President Lincoln’s. The talk with her priest while walking through a quiet preserves gives us an important piece to her puzzle. I came away with a new understanding of her and the Kennedy’s. Quite something to say for someone who has studied that chapter extensively.
We see the story solely and completely from her perspective. Jackie kept in the background during President Kennedy’s term and so the country did not see this other persona. The one that must have emerged during these tragic weeks. The first persona was on public display. The second, at least as told in the film, was more forceful and questioning. Ms. Portman gives us searing deep dive into the second Jackie.
Right after the assassination Jackie read what was being written about her husband and was displeased. She summoned a famous journalist, Theodore H. White (not identified in the film) to set the record straight. Billy Crudup plays the journalist and challenges her perspective by carefully asking key questions. The film largely plays back and forth between these interactions and the surreal events of the killing.
In case you’re wondering, the filmmakers do include shots of the actual assassination. This is necessary as it’s the catalyst for everything else that happens in the film. I have never seen these few short moments handled in such a way. Largely from above in drone-like perspective, swooping into the limousine and zooming in on Jackie’s lap. I always marvel when a director can turn out a visual treatment of something all of us have seen over and over and make it completely new.
Mica Levi’s minimal and haunting score might be a bit of an overreach in the sadness category. The tenth track, Vanity, goes deep inside the character’s mind. Someone who puts a high priority on her physical appearance suddenly finds herself being dragged down by something evil. Someone, a nobody, has ended the shining light of her John.
Technical aspects of the film are solid. Weaving in special effects to recreate the fuzziness we witnessed on black and white television was highly effective.
It’s been nearly impossible for this country to shake off what happened in Dallas, which is what I believe this film is all about. Highly recommended for discerning fans of serious cinema.
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