Jackie: America’s Matriarch

Jackie

2017
Dir.: Pablo Larrain

 

 

 

 

Jackie tells the story of Jackie Kennedy, the former First Lady of the United States, in the days and moments after her husband, former president John F. Kennedy, is assassinated in Texas. The film revolves entirely around the First Lady, as she is not only stripped of her occupation, but also her husband. Despite these trials, Jackie remains a strong, determined woman, ready and not only desperate find out the identity of her husband’s killer, but also adamant to make her husband a president remembered fondly for decades to come. Of course, we as viewers know that JFK as a president is held in high regard, though the outcome of the film does not guide the narrative of Jackie. Rather, the film works as a tale of a woman whose love and purpose is taken away from her by circumstances impossible to foresee. Rather than nihilistically dwell on the eternal struggle of living after the death of a loved one, Jackie focuses on making sure that the American people remember her husband as a man of action and integrity, even if his flaws as a president still remain fresh in the public’s subconscious.

Though this film is ultimately a biopic and it conforms to most biopic genre cliches, it actually has some art film leanings, particularly in the areas of cinematography and score. The cinematography employs old-school, 35-millimeter film to help accentuate the authenticity of the time period, and it also edits together archival black and white film footage with newly filmed footage of Natalie Portman as Jackie. The splicing of these scenes feels seamless, and it helps to add an extra layer of authenticity and gravitas to Portman’s focused portrayal.
Additionally, the score, extraordinarily orchestrated by Under the Skin alum Mica Levi, adds an ominous base that helps to add to Jackie’s stress and to further provide the audience with nervous tension in scenes that could feel mundane otherwise. While the cinematography and score never get to Iñárritu levels of artistic showmanship, Jackie excels where it could have just played it safe and provided yet another Oscar-bait biopic with a renowned actor. Even though the film’s events are known to the public, the technical prowess on display gives these long-chronicled events a fresh sense of energy, and even solemn scenes, such as those where Jackie speaks to John Hurt’s priest character in a park, feel extra emotional due to the sounds and visuals presented.

Ultimately, this film will most likely be remembered positively for Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy. Whereas most performances of this character rely particularly on her unique blend of accents and her hand motions, Portman adds an extra layer of nuance to her speaking, smiles, and facial expressions that convince the viewer that they are watching the titular First Lady. While the supporting performances are good, the suspension of disbelief remains a little bit harder to maintain for Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy and John Carroll Lynch’s Lyndon B. Johnson, as their performances are serviceable, but nowhere near as transcendent. Portman clearly carries the film throughout its brisk runtime. It simply wouldn’t work without her dedication to providing an authentic portrayal. Her persistence in encouraging America to remember her husband for his successes rather than his failures, while a universal ambition for most wives, feels more urgent than obligatory here. It's a stunning testament to her acting capability. She deserves the acclaim she will receive for this film.

The film’s greatest strength is simultaneously its greatest flaw: this is a centerpiece on Jackie Kennedy as she suffers through her husband’s assassination and the subsequent swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson as Commander in Chief. As such, the audience sees events entirely through Jackie’s perspective, and though Natalie Portman’s incredible performance successfully carries this film through its slowest moments, the film feels largely uneventful despite the tragedy that unfolds. Glimpses of reactions from Bobby Kennedy, the Johnsons, and the other political figures are shown, but these hints leave the viewer wanting more. Even if this is the intent of the filmmakers, it does feel like uneven, unsatisfying storytelling at its worst moments. Luckily, with clever cinematography and a stellar lead performance, the cinematic experience feels mostly compelling. I simply wish that the film gave us more information as to the other character’s perspectives, even if the titular character remains the main focus.

Jackie succeeds in providing enough intrigue through its cinematic strengths to never completely bore the audience. At the same time, it provides an excellent lead performance, a haunting-slash-beautiful score, and some tasteful cinematography to craft an experience that proves great rather than simply adequate. This film does a singular job immensely well, and is to be commended for telling an uncharacteristically isolated tale about a woman who cannot free herself from the heartache and tragedy that becomes her life after her husband is murdered., even if the film does not do a perfect job of incorporating said desire for isolation into the narrative itself. If you appreciate artful biopics, you’ll find a lot to like about Jackie.

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