It’s possible that only Mary Todd Lincoln would be able to outshadow Jacqueline Kennedy as the one First Lady in history whose lasting legacy has been so incredibly strong that its been reimagined through film and television an astoundingly high number of times. Everyone from the likes of Jaclyn Smith to Katie Holmes have donned the pink pillbox hat and tried to infuse their acting and empathy to each interpretation of arguably one of the most famous and still-mystifying women who ever lived. The one recurring problem most of the past projects have faced, is that each one seems so in awe of their subject, that they tend to lose focus on the Jackie’s essence. In an interview many years afterwards, Roma Downey recalled how the script she received to play Jackie for a TV production was almost the size of a telephone book, signifying the writer’s love affair with the real life figure and his desire to capture every moment of her life, afraid that one omission would be doing a great dishonor to the then still-living Jackie. Some will surely claim that Pablo Larrain’s much-lauded film Jackie is played more for dramatic effect than factual storytelling, yet very few will say it isn’t the most interesting of all the incarnations which have come before.
Focusing squarely on the period of her life which would eventually cement her fame, Jackie stars Natalie Portman as the ex-First Lady in the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The camera follows Jackie as she tries to plan her husband’s funeral, shield her children from scrutiny, and come with grips with her husband’s death, which not only put an end to the fairy tale many imagined to be true, but in its wake and her ensuing actions, has secured her a place as one of the most famous women who ever lived.
The best thing about Jackie is that it never tries to disguise itself off as a biopic. Sure, there is the retelling of events, but this isn’t about seeing Portman in the infamous dress march behind JFK’s casket. Instead this is about the sensibilities of the woman herself, from the way she approached being First Lady, to the way she chose to grieve over her husband’s death. It’s mesmerizing to watch the varying emotions Larrain puts his Jackie through. We see her feel despair, disillusionment, anger, and a fearsome sense of control (perhaps the most prevalent of all the ones on display here). While the question of how true to life these all were in revealing who the woman was, and how much has been conjured up by the writer is certainly a valid one. Yet the one area in which there’s never any doubt in this portrayal of Jackie is in her strength. Larrain excellently shows how strong and determined and Jackie was in her actions, which speak for themselves. From attending Johnson’s swearing-in as President in her blood-stained outfit, to her decision to march in a procession behind her husband’s casket (“alone if I have to,” she defiantly states), Jackie shows undeniable bravery, which Larrain captures beautifully and truthfully.
It’s was somewhat surprising to see how much time Jackie devotes to the idea of legacy. Throughout the film the audience bears witness to its heroine questioning exactly what being President of the United States entails, including how it changes the man himself and what happens to him once he was left the White House. Jackie doesn’t merely spend time pondering such notions, but instead is shown pushing her grief aside and fighting to ensure that her husband’s death will never be forgotten at any cost.
Portman’s portrayal of Jackie may be THE most eyed performance of the year (again pointing to the real-life woman’s thriving endurance as a historical figure), and she never once disappoints. Yes, the actress nails Jackie’s mannerisms and entrancing dialect in ways which calling them impressive almost does them a disservice. Beyond that however, Portman conveys the sense of disbelief and unexplainable wonder of not just what it was like to deal with her husband’s death, but also what it meant to exist in the world Jackie lived in for that brief time.
It’s not easy to be a supporting player in Jackie. All of the actors in the film, including Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s personal assistant, John Hurt as her priest, and Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, all do some genuinely fine work here, much of which is overshadowed by Portman’s stunning performance. The only one who is able to come remotely close to matching the prowess of the film’s lead actress is Billy Crudup as a journalist with whom Jackie has agreed to sit down and tell her story. Their scenes, used as a framing device to tell most of the film’s events, manages its own kind of spark, at times even making one wonder what a film between the two of them would play out like.
There are problems with Jackie for sure, including the retelling of events in a manner which can best be described as fragmented, especially in the curiously interspersed recreations of Jackie’s infamous televised tour of the White House. Not helping matters is the jarring musical score which feels like it was ripped straight from an Italian horror film. Nevertheless Jackie does right by its subject in not trying to poise itself as the ultimate portrait of its central figure or a beautifully mounted history lesson, but rather a thoughtful comment on strength and legacy.