I found it very fitting that a trailer for the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie played before Jackie, considering that Pablo Larraín’s biopic of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy depicts the former first lady much like the character in Disney’s beloved fairytale. Oh, but I’m not talking about the whimsical, good hearted Belle who sees the good in even the ghastliest creatures. It seems that Mrs. Kennedy has much more in common with the Beast: someone cursed for his own ego, living in a cold and empty palace with a reminder of his woes kept in a case always in his presence. While Mrs. Kennedy was certainly not a furry monster with horns damned by an enchantress’ curse, her wealthy upbringing and glamourous interpretation of life as the First Lady certainly fueled the confidence in her smile. But after a quarter of her husband’s head was blown to bits inches away from her on November 22, 1963, the White House that was her castle became an icy, vacant tomb of what her life was and she couldn’t escape the sorrow of her loss, whether it be the vacant chair in the Oval Office or sitting right next to her husband’s casket mere hours after trying to collect bits of his brains off of a car. But don’t worry, she made sure everyone knew she and her family remained every bit as perfect as she (or the American people) wanted them to be. In a way, Jackie Kennedy believed in beauty in the most beastly time of her life.
This is the balancing act that plays out in Jackie, a grim yet gorgeous character study of an American icon that got the dream and nightmare in the best and worst way. Jackie’s framing device is a journalist (Billy Crudup) interviewing the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, MA for Life magazine in 1963, mere weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. During the interview, Jackie is bitter and standoffish while constantly questioning Mr. White’s intentions and notes as she burns through cigarette after cigarette (though doesn’t want her smoking habits in print). While speaking her mind on everything from policies of the First Lady to the legacy of her husband’s presidency, the movie flashes back to various moments in her time at the White House. It shows the poise and grace of Mrs. Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House in early 1962 and the nights she danced to classical music with her charming husband. The main focus of the flashbacks kickoff on that fateful day in Dallas, with Jackie in her iconic pink dress holding her dead husband in her arms while her face and skirt have splashes of his blood on them. Even with her husband dead, she’s already planning a funeral with the same gravitas and pageantry as Abraham Lincoln’s. Surrounded by confidants including brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), longtime friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and a priest (John Hurt), Jackie tries to comprehend how she wants her husband to be remembered by the public and how to conduct herself after the love of her life is gone and if she ever loved her life at all.
It would be easy to paint Jackie in the narrative of “grieving widow trying to be strong.” Larraín has that in his film, but it’s such a miniscule part of the story that it goes by nearly unrecognized. Instead, he sees more anger in Jackie than grief. She wants the public to see her shaken demeanor and somber face next to her husband’s coffin as punishment for the immense pressure and scrutiny they put on her and her family, practically blaming the people for JFK’s death (“They put him on ‘Wanted’ posters,” she says before rolling out JFK’s casket off of Air Force One). She’s also angry that after all of the effort to present herself as perfect as porcelain, all she gets in return is a dead husband and kicked out of her presidential palace. At the end of it all, she wonders who she did any of this for: her husband, herself, or the American people? It’s fascinating to see Jackie appear fiercely protective of her husband’s legacy one minute, micromanaging where he’ll be buried and how many horses will be carrying his coffin through Washington D.C., to drunkenly sulking around the White House in old dresses while a vinyl of Camelot plays in the background (because ain’t irony a kick?). It’s questionable as to how much of the scenes are fact or fiction, but Noah Oppenheim’s script is more about the ethics and morals of Jackie’s dilemma and letting the real events inform each decision. The movie as a whole is visually stunning thanks to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine dimming the colors in the movie with a hint of gray. There’s also a good combination of sweeping wide shots of the barren White House or the JFK funeral procession and closeups of the characters under constant emotional stress, boosted by Mica Levi’s haunting string section in the film’s score. It’s Terrence Malick meets David Fincher, and it works surprisingly well.
But you know why you’re here: Natalie Portman…….HO-LY LORD. Portman is a force as the First Lady, capturing every possible side of Jackie’s personality at the time: the fiercely protective wife demanding the world honor her husband like he was King Midas, the broken-hearted lover grieving over the loss of her Prince Charming, the unsure rich girl on the verge of having the lavish lifestyle taken away from her. The most interesting segments of Portman’s performance is when she questions her own worth and her own direction. She speaks to the priest (in a great performance by Hurt) about wishing she could’ve married a baker or a store owner, questioning if all of the comfort of her life has been worth anything if it could go away so suddenly. Portman has the fragility of Jackie down, but turns that into a jaded form of rage as she tries to control something entirely unstable. Even through her tears, she controls each scene. And then the interview segments the journalist (Crudup, also exceptional) where she continuously snipes about what the American people deserve to hear about the assassination and how she coped with it all. Portman shows the layers of Jackie on full display and masters every single one. While it may not be as complex and disturbed as her Nina Sayers in Black Swan, her performance in Jackie marks another peak for her career and one of the best acting performances of the year. To complement that is a well-rounded cast of supporting performances from Skarsgaard, Hurt, and Crudup all giving ace performances. But this is Portman’s show and she owns it.
Jackie avoids the pitfalls of typical biopics by playing around with the order not only of the scenes, but of its title character. The movie lays out Jackie’s character like pieces of a jumbled puzzle, piecing bits together not exactly in the right order but regardless comes together at the end. When Jackie ends, I felt as if every possible question about Jackie Kennedy Onassis has been answered even if the movie is not a complete look at her life. But maybe that’s what one moment can do to one’s life, as corny as it sounds. After all, it shook an entire country, perhaps even an entire world. Imagine what it did to one person?
4 out of 4 stars