My grandfather was sitting in a restaurant on November 22, 1963, and eating with his then-wife when a waiter came over and told him that the President, John F. Kennedy, had been shot. “What, the President of this restaurant?” my grandfather replied. “The President of the United States,” the waiter responded. I don’t tell it nearly as well as he does, for he remembers it like it was the most important day of his life. In fact, everyone alive then does; it’s part of them for eternity, embedded in their brain whether they like it or not.
Pablo Larraín’s JACKIE is basically that story, except from the detailed perspective of the titlular character (Natalie Portman) who was sitting next to her husband when his head became target practice. Although primarily charting the event and its immediate aftermath, JACKIE also veers into an interview the former first lady gives with a reporter (Billy Crudup), a private conversation with a reverend (John Hurt), and the televised White House Tour that immortalized her serene nature. The constant cutting between these four settings is jarring, and admittedly a bit confusing: but boy, does it lead to a fascinating product.
Natalie Portman demands your attention as Jackie Kennedy. She captures exceptionally well the grace and elegance of the former First Lady’s public persona as well as the entrapped, subdued look of her private life. Her almost spot-on impersonation of Jackie Kennedy’s voice takes a little getting used to but becomes very natural. Portman isn’t the only one to turn in a great performance, though: Greta Gerwig plays a character who wants to be Jackie Kennedy, and as a result Gerwig impersonates Portman without ever becoming a caricature; Billy Crudup’s cold stature as the reporter is never too on-the-nose, and the pseudo-bond the two form is established with great care; Peter Sarsgaard disappears into his character, never looking to steal the scene from Portman. The ensemble works together extremely well, and there’s always an undercurrent to each relationship that makes the individual connections feel lived in.
The glamorous lifestyle we associate with Jackie Kennedy is rarely touched on during the course of the 100 minute runtime. Instead, the film entraps us in Jackie’s uncomfortable perspective. Up-close and personal, Pablo Larraín’s camera works in conjunction with Mica Levi’s low and off-putting score to share the protagonist’s horrible situation with the audience. Unlike most wide-screen movies, this film is shot in a square aspect ratio, boxing us in with Jackie as we realize that we’re not getting out of her head anytime soon.
The most fascinating part of JACKIE, though, is what we see of her when she’s alone. She seeks solace through drinking and smoking, she lounges around the White House while listening to the Broadway show Camelot; she’s essentially Jackie Kennedy without the gaze of a camera completely fixed on her (even though, ironically, there is one). It’s a detail that most would overlook, and yet it tells us so much about Jackie. She’s tired, tired of being the First Lady, tired of being a role model for young women everywhere, tired of the constant photographs. This is what the film is about: the unshakable eye of the media. Jackie’s public and private life work together to tell us that the media’s all-encompassing stare is not a healthy thing for someone. Jackie is rarely allowed to grieve, rarely allowed to not be the elegant Jackie Kennedy we know her as, rarely allowed to have a concern besides what the entire world will think. The whole world is watching her, and she can’t keep up with it without at least breaking a little bit.
JACKIE is more than what most are giving it credit for, more than a standard biopic that looks to garner acting awards during Oscar season. There are layers here that I haven’t even begun to unravel, details to be discovered on a rewatch. JACKIE is a wonderful work of art that takes a real life person and turns her life into a fascinating character study while never exploiting her misery for cheap tears.