Our Editor Chloe Woods reviews Pablo Larraín’s experimental and intimate biopic.
Everybody but the Producer’s Guild loves this movie.
Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s first film in English, follows Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy in the days following JFK’s assassination. Released in the US over a month ago, the film world has raved about Natalie Portman’s portrayal of its eponymous lead. Jackie itself has received only slightly less acclaim. Yet, despite arguably outclassing films such as Arrival, Hell or High Water, and even – I’m going there – La La Land1 (our review), it has so far been snubbed for Best Picture nods by the major award nominations and this is not expected to change when the Oscars publish their list next week. Why?
We open to discordant, slurring bass notes and the image of an estate far removed from Washington, where hollow-cheeked Jackie Kennedy (Portman) greets the journalist who has come to interview her about her husband’s death. From here we are taken back: first to the early days of Jackie’s life as First Lady, then to the shooting itself and the immediate aftermath. The film’s chronology is fluid and it soon becomes clear that the interview itself is not a framing device but a core part of the film, which flits back and forth through time, and of the former First Lady’s strategy.
Portman, as we’ve all heard, carries the weight of the film and does so beautifully. As a woman who maintains layers of masks even when alone, never lets us know if her true self has been revealed, and claims to no longer recall the difference between performance and reality, the role of Jackie Kennedy is a challenging one beyond the usual difficulties of biopics; but from Portman’s performance you might think it easy to be by turns poised, anguished, melancholy, demanding and even joyful. Of the supporting cast, Peter Sarsgaard is effective but forgettable as Bobby F. Kennedy, while John Hurt steals scenes in a wonderful turn as the opinionated Father McSorley. Stéphane Fontaine’s camerawork is rarely dramatic but always quietly functional, and a handful of striking scenes stand out at critical moments. More memorable is Mica Levi’s score, exaggerated and off-kilter to great purpose as a warning that the film is not all it might appear to be – and certainly not the film viewers are likely to expect.
Jackie is not a celebration of Jackie Kennedy’s fortitude, nor a dissection of her grief, nor even an exploration of the disconnect between grand narratives and human truths. Though presented on a very human scale, sensitive to the frailties of the small creatures at its centre – even when they are presidents, and presidents’ wives – the film’s ultimate concern is the collapse of narrative and truth into one another, through a woman who (with fortitude, and with grief, and despite her allotted role as trophy wife) masterfully exploits the understanding that they are the same thing. The journalist is permitted to grasp something of this: he notes that he expects Jackie to scream, “My husband was a great man.” Bobby Kennedy lists his brother’s failures and asks what is wrong with her, well aware Jackie is too astute to be ignorant of how little JFK achieved. The viewer too might be left wondering why Jackie is so determined to have her husband remembered as a latter-day Abraham Lincoln. While the film records her actions in pursuit of a grand spectacle to solidify her husband’s greatness, Jackie’s motives are rendered less and less fathomable. Only near the end does it becomes clear –
But that, perhaps, would be telling.
We know from the beginning that Jackie Kennedy is no stranger to spectacle. Through the filming of a White House tour, years before the main events of the movie, we watch Jackie learn to hide her powerful intellect and present herself as the president’s devoted, politically naïve wife. In her least controlled moments, when the mask slips, her instinct is to understand and take charge of the situation; after the first shock of her husband’s death she soon rallies, determined to take the steps necessary to ensure his legacy. Wavering over the line between reality and fiction, Jackie is a woman who wields truth like a weapon and understands better than anyone around her the malleability of history.
This may be part of the reason various award guilds, known for staunch traditionalism and a certain fondness for easy morals, have not flocked to Jackie as both critics and audiences have. Though it does not undersell the grief of JFK’s death for the people around him, it shows this grief in opposition to both Jackie’s driven actions, and the film’s own interest in taking a sickle probe to the version of America’s history she helped to create. It’s intriguing to note here that Larraín is not American. Anybody might challenge the accepted story of JFK’s greatness and martyrdom; probably only an outsider would use it as a case study in the question of myth-making. The film takes it for granted that Kennedy’s legacy is constructed. (Maybe that’s news, maybe it’s not. It’s worth noting that JFK’s assassination does survive, fifty years on, as a story of tragic death and great potential cut short. In this sense Jackie achieved what she was aiming for. But Kennedy’s memory is not nearly as ubiquitous, or unquestioned, as she might have desired.) Its main concern is with whether this construction is necessary or justified, and whether Jackie honestly believes it is or acts for her own reasons. Does the USA need its own Camelot? Does Kennedy deserve to be its King Arthur? America already has its founding myths: does it need more? And what will Jackie sacrifice, or has she already sacrificed, in the attempt to create one? These are difficult, uncomfortable questions, necessitating a more cynical approach to history than most who live within it like to believe in; and they are questions on which the film very nearly reserves judgement.
Now, don’t think I believe Jackie is perfect. It fails to address what JFK, in fact, stood for – civil rights and the space programme receive barely a passing mention. In a sense this is excusable, but the comparison to Camelot (also glorified with a very vague sense of “good”) is unbalanced by the equal and opposite comparison to Abraham Lincoln. The tonal control shudders at times in the transition between the interview and the rest of the film. The interview might also be accused of falling into the “tell, don’t show” trap, but it’s fairer to say that by spelling out its basic thesis, Jackie leaves space for more subtle and nuanced points to unfold naturally. In many ways more character study than dramatic narrative, this is a wilful movie with important and complex points to make about the role of a First Lady, women’s power, the creation of the past, and the loss of identity in service of that creation. (The irony of making these points through a fictionalised historic figure is not lost. Who speaks for the dead?) All of this may render Jackie a little, shall we say, less than loveable for the average Producer’s Guild2 member; but awards are fleeting and history may yet offer vindication. Even if it doesn’t, Pablo Larraín’s will be a name to watch out for3.
No marks out of ten; we die like men. Verdict: go see it4.
Jackie is out now in UK cinemas. See the theatrical trailer below:
1Hell or High Water is the poor man’s No Country for Old Men, while La La Land doesn’t know whether to repudiate its own snobbishness or not. I adored Arrival and might give it the edge if I watched it back-to-back with Jackie, but it’s still unjustified that of the two only Arrival has received Best Picture nominations from the BAFTAs or the Producers’ Guild. I’m fully aware the whole thing is commonly derided as a nepotistic sham. It’s still annoying.
2Yeah, yeah, I’m picking on the Producers’ Guild. I’d rather pick on the Oscars, but they haven’t released their nominations yet and who knows? Maybe they’ll surprise us.
3It should already be a name to watch out for, but all his previous work is in Spanish and I personally am a useless internationalist.
4My companion cried. Just so you know.