There are a number of traps and obstacles filmmakers face when making a biopic. It grows even more challenging when the film’s focus is a beloved historical and cultural figure. “Jackie”, director Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Jackie Kennedy, would seem to be a prime example. But this film avoids many of these routine complications by setting itself up as something strikingly unique right out of the gate.
Writer Noah Oppenheim first conceived “Jackie” as an HBO miniseries but the project evolved into a compact, tightly-wound 98 minute feature. It tells the story of Jackie Kennedy but not in the traditional sense. Instead it restricts its focus to the four days between the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 to the state funeral on November 25th. It’s told almost entirely from her perspective yet it’s much more than a detailed historical account. The film’s interest is in exploring Jackie’s state of mind during those impossibly traumatic few days. It does so with equal amounts of fact and speculation.
The narrative framework comes in the form of an interview. Billy Crudup, credited as simply The Journalist (but based on Life magazine journalist Theodore White), arrives at the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port compound to interview the former First Lady. He’s met by a pale, drained Jackie (played with uncanny ferocity by Natalie Portman). Throughout their mercurial and sometimes contentious interview it becomes clear Jackie is the one dictating the terms of what will be written. When she lights a cigarette she emphatically tells the journalist “I don’t smoke.” – a clear signal to him that she controls the message.
Through the interview we revisit those agonizing four days the way Jackie recalls them. All of the iconic imagery is there – the ’61 Lincoln convertible, the pink bloodstained Chanel dress, Jackie and Caroline kneeling at JFK’s casket. Larraín presents these scenes through well detailed recreations and archived historical footage. But this movie is more interested in the time between those well-documented moments. What did Jackie do? Better yet what was she feeling?
Because of this focus “Jackie” maintains a keen psychological edge to it. You see it as she maneuvers through an emotional haze of grief and anxiety. Larraín and Oppenheim want us inside of Jackie’s head as they themselves ponder her internal reactions to such painful and uncertain events. Portman runs with it, diving so deeply into the psyche of her character that we completely forget the two look nothing alike. You buy into her personal struggles and her wranglings with others including her compassionate brother-in-law Bobby (played by Peter Sarsgaard who is so good here) and Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch).
Surprisingly this isn’t a puff piece aimed at reinforcing Jackie’s venerated cultural image. It doesn’t shy away from her weaknesses or blemishes. At the same time it doesn’t shortchange her strength and fortitude. At no point does the film question her resilience or integrity. If anything it humanizes her and makes her a more sympathetic and relatable person especially considering the overwhelming pressures she faced.
This movie’s unusual approach to the biopic is sure to catch a lot of people off guard. In some of its deeper internal moments it’s almost hallucinogenic, maybe too much so on occasion. Mica Levi’s moody score is a big contributor. It plays prominently from start to finish and blankets the entire film with a steady sense of unease. And then we get back to Portman and her sublime performance. It’s peculiar and off-kilter, perfectly so. That makes it a wonderful fit for this unusual but thoroughly satisfying portrait.
VERDICT – 4 STARS