NYFF Review: JACKIE Is Fearless On All Fronts

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

“The will never be another Camelot.”

In the Q&A following the film's premiere, Jackie director Pablo Larraín described seeing Natalie Portman perform for the first time. It wasn’t the sort of statement you’d expect from a filmmaker, especially about someone he placed so much faith in, but he described being taken aback by the way she sounded. “It’s too much!” he recalled whispering to his brother as he began shooting his first English language production. What ends up on screen might also be described as “too much” in the accent department, as Portman (even after being supposedly reigned in) delivers every line in a manner that feels simultaneously caricatured and characteristic of the famous First Lady. Larraín’s key concern was audiences being able to understand her, and understand her we can in the finished product, but it’s crystal clear that whatever she was initially doing on set came from the inside out, stunning Larraín like she's sure to stun audiences, for she delivers a performance as big and broad as the film she’s in, but one that truly finds itself in the subtle moments nestled amidst its bombast. Award-season prognostication is neither my forte nor my area of interest, but it’s hard to imagine a winter-spring transition without Portman’s name on every statue. She swings for the fences and connects explosively, in a film that does the same.

Jackie is about giving ourselves, and the people we love, over to the power of history. Most of us won’t ever have that opportunity, for we are not the “beautiful people” the film describes. But that beauty, power and enigmatic aura doesn’t come without its pitfalls, especially in the wake of arguably the most famous assassination in history. As an entire nation wrestles with its identity, First Lady Jacqueline and her brother-in-law Bobby (an unrecognizable Peter Sarsgaard) are forced to reckon with the Kennedy legacy and what they leave behind. For Jackie, it begins with the White House curtains. The chairs. The tables. The Lincoln-era furniture she worked so hard to collect, but it stems outward from there as she’s tasked with helping decide her late husband’s place in the annals of history.

As Bobby is forced to face their collective political shortcomings, the inevitable comparisons to the original owner of Jackie’s furniture begin. Abe Lincoln was remembered for freeing the slaves, but the average American can’t name anything done by Presidents Garfield and McKinley, who were also shot and killed while in office. Did the Kennedys drop the ball on civil rights? Did they lay forth a disastrous path for Vietnam? Whatever the answers today, we’re dropped into the middle of these anxious conversations as they were still unfolding. We’re placed right in the middle of history itself as Jackie recalls the assassination to reporter Theodore White (played with curiosity and diplomacy by Billy Crudup), narrating her most personal thoughts and feelings.

Jackie’s interview with White is used to structure the film, one told in somewhat linear fashion, but not entirely. It mostly jumps back and forth over a period of days, both before and after the shooting, but it sometimes goes as far back as Jackie’s famous televised White House tour (her biggest foray into the public eye, and into America’s homes, until the events in Dallas), and as late as her post-funeral confessions with her priest played by John Hurt. And being dropped into the middle of this interview feels almost literal, as if the camera is placed on the table between Jackie and White, recording their interactions head-on.

Historicity is an important aspect of the Presidential biopic, but Jackie’s relationship to history itself is just as fascinating as her story. It’s no doubt factual, or as factual as can be, but it’s unafraid to get its hands dirty, taking us close and personal to events we only know from a distance. Zapruder’s footage of the JFK assassination is nowhere to be found, nor is the perspective of the American people. Instead, we’re alongside the First Lady in the vehicle, the President’s head on her lap as she tries desperately to gather his skull fragments, just as Natalie Portman desperately tries to make sense of her emotions – going through the events in one moment, and describing the look on his face in the next.

A major plot-point of the film surrounds the arrangements for the President’s funeral, and Jackie’s research into making it feel as close to Lincoln’s as possible. While we, the viewers, have enough distances to recognize Kennedy’s place in history, being dropped into this historical moment and placed behind the scenes comes with a rising anxiety about how he ought to be laid to rest, manifesting as a fracture between Jackie and Bobby. This anxiety is complemented tremendously by Mica Levi’s operatic score, a constant that draws as much attention to itself as Portman’s performance, as the two work in tandem to navigate the interior lives of people who lived in the spotlight. You might remember Levi’s work on Under The Skin, and if you’re expecting something just as haunting, you’re in luck.

While there are subtle differences between the Jackie of the people (the one seen by the cameras) and Jackie the wife, mother and stately homemaker (introduced to us as she practices putting on the former’s face in a mirror), those differences are presented as largely superficial. It’s sometimes as simple as the way she smiles, and it’s a façade that comes crashing down as soon as the bullets are fired. Jackie, like Portman, is unafraid to let the world feel her pain, unafraid to make it known that children lost their father that day, and unafraid to seem vulnerable as the mother of those, children who’ll soon have to contend with their father’s legacy. But what she can’t understand until it’s made explicit to her is that the world wants to feel her pain. It wants her to be the mother they need in the face of the father they too just lost, because they’re just as confused as she is.

It’s in these moments, while divulging her husband’s private love for the musical Camelot, that she truly impacts his public legacy. Similar to Springsteen’s often-misunderstood “Born In The USA,” the message of Camelot (a satirical take on King Arthur) has been ingrained in the minds of the American people as a national epitaph. Not because of what it said about John F. Kennedy, but because of the hope and comfort it provided to the people. And even if Jackie Kennedy was more a figure than she was a leader, she was a figure whose place in history was determined by how she chose to respond to history itself, right as it was happening to her. She loved music, she loved her children, and she loved the fine details of her Civil War-era antiques, but she was also the embodiment of glamour.

Portman and Larraín allow us to get to know all these sides of her, from the brave face she puts on while refusing to change out of her blood-stained pink, to the intimately captured shower scene and her hasty attempts to wash off that same blood. It’s as if she wants to share these parts of herself with the people, desperate to tell us that she’s human, and that she feels pain like the rest of us.