From the moment John F. Kennedy became the President of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy knew she would become a part of history. She had no idea what her or her husband’s legacy would be in the long run, and much of Jackie presents the recent widower attempting to create that legacy for the two of them. Much like how Mrs. Kennedy can’t quite control everything about her legacy, neither can Jackie.
Jackie is staggering look at the worst week in the First Lady’s wife: her husband dies, so she must move out of the White House and does her best to stop her husband from becoming little less that a footnote in American history. But in the footage after the assassination, Jackie becomes even more than that. It presents the way that those in power construct how future generations view the past. Jackie shows that in many cases: our collective memory isn’t the truth at all. Both aspects of Jackie are expertly played off, but the latter is far more prescient, making Jackie one of the most important films of 2016. The lies told to the public as truths, the downfall of an American idea,l and the end of the United States as a Camelot-level kingdom are all just as timely today as they were fifty years ago.
The interaction of truth and perception is nothing new for director Pablo Larrain. His 2012 best foreign language film nominee No showed how advertising campaigns can sway election results. In a similar way, Jackie Kennedy is often selling herself and the idea of what her existence means to the American people. After her husband is murdered next to her, she refuses to change her clothes, demanding the public witness what she has been put through. When JFK’s funeral arrangements are being made, she consults Lincoln’s procession, hoping that the similarities will place her husband in a similar context. Even before her week full of nightmares, Jackie shows Mrs. Kennedy giving the American public their first look inside the White House, showcasing a home of culture and historical importance that had never been seen by most. From the very beginning, Jackie is presenting herself as an idea, and she sells the public what she wants them to see rather than the entire truth.
Jackie presents the life of Mrs. Kennedy in two different time frames, very close to each other, but still the change is vast. The more successful of the two shows the week of JFK’s death in vignette form. Jackie intimately follows Kennedy, from the important moments, such as holding her husband’s body moments after he is shot, to the simpler, like packing for her move out of the White House, or watching her get ready for the day. Everything presents a fuller glimpse of who this woman might have been, how she composed herself. Larrain shoots these scenes with a grainy tint, following closely behind Natalie Portman as Kennedy in a way that brings to mind the films of Terrence Malick or Gus Van Sant. The hauntingly beautiful score from by Mica Levi is like her previous work in Under the Skin, another tale of uncertainty in the complete unknown.
The less effective timeline is also the film’s framing device, as Kennedy is interviewed by Life magazine writer (Billy Crudup). The aforementioned flashbacks have a dreamy, hazy quality that are novel for the typical biopic, but writer Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner, Allegiant) takes away from this dynamic with this fairly banal choice. At the very least, it does allow for Kennedy to provide her own commentary for her actions and feelings in the past, but its lazy structure is by far the film’s biggest weakness.
Regardless of what side of Jackie we are seeing, it is Portman’s incredible performance that ties the entire film together and makes Jackie as wondrous as it is. Portman here is never one-note, always playing each moment with another layer underneath. Whether its hiding her true pain, putting it at the forefront, or trying to create a facade for the public, there’s always depth to what Kennedy does. Portman isn’t just portraying her, she’s also recreating her many facets, which in themselves almost feel like completely different characters. It’s a masterful performance that will likely go down as Portman’s best.
Jackie is an unexpectedly jarring, always fascinating look at one of the most famous First Ladies, in a way that we’ve never seen before. Larrain and Portman don’t just create a character of Kennedy, they recreate an emotional state of being in the wake of tragedy that is familiar and foreign. Larrain has presented grief in its most public state: frightening, unnerving, and powerful.