Director: Pablo Larraín
Release date: December 9, 2016
Watched: July 4th, 2019
I watched Jackie a third at a time. Breaking it up made it easier to digest. It is a filling movie, so taking my time with it allowed me to savor it. I was driven to see it on the 4th of July, thanks to Vulture’s Hunter Harris and her persuasive piece on why, exactly, this was the perfect film for this year’s 4th of July.
I felt this sudden overwhelming pull that I NEEDED to watch close-ups of Natalie Portman’s face as her character wrestled with psychological horror and descended into emotional distress.
Natalie Portman gives the most acute portrayal of the act of bring shell-shocked, not simply the emotion. Her life becomes totally out of her control from the moment a bullet burst her husband’s brains into her lap. What happens after that moment, when she is whisked away and automatically officially stripped of her titles as “First Lady,” becomes the focal point of the film. Composer Mica Levi’s “moody, haunting score” sets the tone.
Jackie Kennedy is poised. She is grace personified. She is dignified.
Jackie Kennedy is ferocious, a lioness. She is single-minded, determined. She is relentless.
Jackie Kennedy is haunted. She is alone and isolated. She is vulnerable.
All these layers of complexity are evident in Natalie Portman’s sweeping performance.
The camera dwells on Jackie’s disrobing as she walks around her White House chambers hazily. She peels off the physical evidence of the horror she witnessed, the bloodied clothes, then cleanses herself of the blood in the shower, only able to scrub off the physical reminder, but unable to wash away the emotional terror.
“Jackie” has all the malaise of a horror film without ever verging completely into fear-evoking territory. Instead, we watch closely as one woman is forced to uphold standards of statehood during a time of intense, deeply personal unraveling. How can one truly grieve when everyone is looking to them like they are a spectacle?
Jackie’s saving grace appears in the form of Robert “Bobby” F. Kennedy, her one ally in the loss of an intimate relation. He, like her, has a vested interest in honoring JFK the man, not simply JFK the public figure. With authority, he swoops in to ensure Jackie’s needs are not swept through the cracks. They only feel safe enough to express their unadulterated anger towards their new circumstances with each other.
The film is interlaced with two very different sides of Jackie: her showcase of the White House pre-assassination, and her acerbic interview with a journalist post-assassination. The juxtaposition of Jackie’s stilted performance as a demure, doll-like hostess of well-placed proper domesticity against Jackie’s raw abrasiveness, cutting intellect, and knowing coolness is very well-played by director Pablo Larraín.
Natalie Portman’s performance is a highlight of her already prime career. “Portman has a face made for close-ups,” Angelica Jade Bastién writes in The Outline. The most arresting moments of the film were in Jackie’s daze, her signature facial expression of frozen horror as her mind worked in overdrive to figure out how she could stem the bleeding of her life and regain control. Control over her dead husband’s presidential legacy, control over her own expression of grief and suffering, and control over her newfound loss in status. Every facial expression in the midst of the turbulence of her environment, of people deciding for her what her image as a bereft former first lady should be, of unflappable chaos, depicted unfettered, pure shock and dissociation.
According to cinematographer Stephane Fontaine in a Variety interview, wide-angle lenses and extreme close-ups pushed Jackie’s distress after Kennedy’s death. “We didn’t use long lenses that would make for a more abstract background. Instead, we chose very wide lenses that allowed us to get very close to Natalie. It added to the paranoia and claustrophobia,” says Fontaine, who operated the camera himself.
Greta Gerwig’s Nancy was Jackie’s right-hand woman, her rock when she felt she was losing herself. Part acting coach, part best friend for her real-life crises, Nancy was her most trusted companion. She gave Jackie sincere love and understanding in a world where public presentation trumped personal emotionality.
Where there is life, there is hope. The priest tasked with talking Jackie out of joining her husband and giving up on life remind us of that old adage. As the light shines behind Jackie, casting a warm halo-like glow around her hair while she plays with her children in close to the final shots of the film, we are reminded that the dead live on in their loved ones who are brave enough to live in an uncertain world.
I give this film a strong A for its measured awareness, drawn-out enigma, and performative polish. Natalie Portman deserved all the awards.