For his English-language debut, director Pablo Larrain has taken that most impersonal of genres – the three-handkerchief biopic – and delivered something that is bracingly, gloriously and entirely his own. Running counter to convention at nearly every turn, and anchored by Natalie Portman’s achy-eyed performance, “Jackie” is, despite a few wrinkles at the end, about the best version of this story you can get.
The film’s narrative is deceptively simple. Though it follows the one time Bouvier, not-yet-Onassis in the days immediately after JFK’s assassination, recreating those iconic images in Dallas, aboard Air Force One and in Arlington National Cemetery, the film is about so much more. To a large degree, “Jackie” bears striking resemblance to another anti-biopic hitting the festival circuit this year, the Chilean drama “Neruda” from director… Pablo Larrain. While on paper the two couldn’t look more different – one an expansive meta-narrative about poetry and politics, the other a more or less self-contained drama about a 20th century icon of glamour – both films tackle the subjects of cultural mythmaking and the vast gulf between public and private persona.
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“Jackie” is quite upfront about this, using two interviews Kennedy gives as a framing device. Larrain opens the film on the widow’s Life Magazine exclusive, which she gave about a week after the funeral, but he quickly cuts back two years prior, to the set of a TV special Jackie hosted in her first year at the White House. These two interviews — one her introduction as regal First Lady, the other her reintroduction as the now former-First Lady – create a kind of backbone for the film, and Larrain cuts back to one or the other throughout, highlighting in both cases the way TV producers, family advisors and even Kennedy herself prod and shape the First Lady image. At one point, firing up her seventh or eighth cigarette of the interview, Jackie warmly reminds the reporter (Billy Crudup), “Remember, I don’t smoke.”
Those bookends established, “Jackie” is free to reenact those traumatic few days in November 1963. The first hour is absolutely electric as the story picks up on the plane going Dallas, then into convertible and into history. The camera never really leaves Jackie’s side, usually hovering on her in tight, hand-held close-ups, through the shooting then to the hospital, the plane and back to the White House. Though actor Caspar Phillipson bears an uncanny resemblance to the slain president he plays (a note to all casting directors: The only reason not to cast this man as JFK in every play, movie and motivational seminar for the next 10 years is if Phillipson is otherwise occupied playing JFK elsewhere), the camera mostly excludes him, such is Larrain’s commitment to his Jackie.
The fact that Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim never lose sight of their larger themes prevents the film from feeling like a more familiar docudrama. The scenes on Air Force One have their fair share of dramatic charge, but that is mostly because we understand them in larger context. We see how controlled her persona is, how she always has a role to play, and now she longer does and her life falls apart. “I’m his wife–” she starts to one of the doctors on board but then realizes she must correct herself, “–or, whatever I am now.” When Jackie returns to the White House she wanders the halls in a daze, still in her bloodstained dress. Larrain shoots the empty halls of the executive mansion with an eerie disquiet. You feel like you’re in a haunted house, only Jackie is the ghost.
It goes without saying that nothing about “Jackie” would work without Natalie Portman’s magnificently layered performance. You can see the character calibrating from scene to scene how much emotion to show. You can watch her nail down how the First Lady needs to react even if that’s not what Jackie the woman actually feels in the moment, and then get from point A to point B. It is a testament to Portman’s physical expressivity that even with a slightly shaky handle on Jacqueline Bouvier’s aristocratic inflection (occasionally coming out more Flushing than finishing school) she remains an emotional superconductor.
Throughout its first half, “Jackie” moves forward with clean, propulsive force, but the film loses a step or two towards the end. Larrain muddles the continuity by adding a third framing device, Jackie’s discussion with a priest (John Hurt), on top of the other two, and he never makes clear where the conversation is supposed to fit within the Dallas to White House to funeral narrative. Scenes tend to get shorter and choppier as well, which the film counters by leaning a little too hard on (“Under the Skin” composer) Mica Levi’s warped string score. Don’t be mistaken, Levi wrote a terrifically interesting score, but Larrain’s slight overreliance on it, and the fact that it takes the film about four different tries before figuring out how it wants to go end, makes us wonder if there isn’t a slightly better version of the film sacrificed to award season mammon.
“Jackie” debuted at the Venice Film Festival.