Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín might seem an odd choice to front a biopic about an icon of United States sociopolitical history but the idiosyncratic director proves more than up to the task, painting a vibrant, multihued character portrait of that most famous of JACKIEs through riveting drama and a smartly applied structure.
While I knew the name of Jackie Kennedy, or Jackie O, prior to seeing the film, I really didn’t know much about who or what she was other than being married to a well-liked US president and then, later, to some kind of Greek shipping magnate. I left JACKIE with little in the way of expanded biographical knowledge but with a surprisingly deep exploration of a person, focused through the lens of a specific historical event: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Many of us have probably heard the phrase, in film and television, “I can remember exactly where I was when…” For an older generation of US citizens, the day JFK was killed is one of these moments. Indeed, I experienced something of this sensation— from a great distance— when the planes flew into the World Trade Centre buildings in New York City. I also viewed the JFK assassination response as a dramatised event in the standout historical drama series MAD MEN. So, where then was Jackie Kennedy the day JFK died? Riding in the car beside him, as he took a bullet to the head, is where. Grim stuff. And though I’d thought of this in passing, I’d never considered what the unfolding drama of the following days would’ve been like for one in her position: a newly widowed, suddenly ex-First Lady whose husband, home, and level-headedness has been snatched away, and who is attempting cope with the challenge of grieving in public.
The story of JACKIE unfolds quite literally on the face of Natalie Portman, who director Larraín shoots liberally in extreme-close-up, her features dominating the frame. The actress presents a compelling façade of competing character aspects—at turns determined and controlling then vulnerable and lost—via a cyclic, multi-pronged structure. Through several key story strands the film traverses the week for JACKIE following the assassination, including: her first one-on-one interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup in fine form) after the public funeral; a graphic personal journey through the events of the assassination day; the grim, emotionally charged organisational activity of dealing with a death and change of government administration in the days following, in the company of close friends, family, and presidential staff with competing agendas; and an extended confessional debate with a Catholic Priest (John Hurt ably supplying the requisite warmth, wisdom, and gravitas) leading up to a burial service. Each of these story strands presents JACKIE in a different primary light. Filmmaker and actress dive deep into the myths and iconography surrounding her and the Kennedys, layering version upon version of the character’s public and private persona into something that better approximates the complex truth of a person than is mostly achieved by run-of-the-mill fact and event relating biopics, often drawn from a single point of view. Larraín applied a similar methodology of ‘truth discovery’ to the iconography of a beloved figure from closer to home in his other 2016 outing, NERUDA, which situates the life of famed dissident poet Pablo Neruda within a noiresque cat and mouse detective thriller. Admittedly, in JACKIE, this slow building of layers jarred a little at the beginning but I soon found the film’s rhythm and the central character grows progressively richer as each strand is teased out. In the realm of the biopic I’ll take Larraín’s approach, coupled with an on point performance like that given by Portman, any day of the week.
Rating: M Violence, offensive language and content that may disturb.