“People like to believe in fairy tales. Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment, there was a Camelot.”
Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy repeats this mantra often to people throughout Pablo Larraín's film Jackie; a film unlike any other that captures the feeling of an important moment in American history like lightning in a bottle. Terrific performances, a beautifully claustrophobic sense of feeling, a pitch perfect screenplay, and masterful direction help create a poignant and personal portrait of the once First Lady. Rarely has anyone humanized an iconic, almost mythical person, as successfully as Pablo Larraín has here.
We begin with seeing Jackie in her New England home, giving an interview with a journalist played by Billy Crudup. She recalls the events of the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, and everything that happened afterwards. The film goes back-and-forth with ease through the moments she remembers; recording a TV special about living in the White House, the day of the assassination, and planning JFK's funeral. These flashbacks are shot in handheld style with several close-ups, while the interview sequences are shot in a stable, static mode. This aesthetic decision helps show how Jackie had a shaky grasp of power during disastrous times, but as the film progresses things become stable, cementing Jackie’s power and dominance (What annoys me is when people complain when a filmmaker doesn’t have a specific reason to how they filmed something. Filmmakers don’t have to explain everything in their film to you, and that’s what I loved about it).
Larraín’s direction feels incredibly endearing and humanistic, especially when Jackie is all alone and only has her thoughts to herself. The scene where she’s in a bathroom cleaning off the blood of JFK after the assassination is a great, haunting example of this. It’s always hard to view the Kennedys as anything other than icons, which screenwriter Noah Oppenheim deconstructs so well in this film. Jackie Kennedy is the gatekeeper that helped keep the mythos and legacy of the Kennedys alive. She knows that she is the last hope for her husband to be remembered through all of history, but she has to also be a motherly figure, to comfort her children who will never see their father alive again. In those moments, Jackie becomes a film not only about legacy, but also one of trauma and grief captured magnificently by Natalie Portman.
I believe that Natalie Portman deserves every single award that she gets for this film. Jackie feels made for Portman, as it is not only the best performance of 2016, but the best performance of her career. There are so many scenes that broke my heart and I never once thought of her as an actress. When she’s seeing both of her dead children being buried next to her deceased husband I wanted to cry. Portman’s face is one that could tell you a million stories just with a glance; I felt like I was watching Jackie Kennedy throughout the entire runtime.
I figured Portman would be amazing but I was truly shocked at the supporting actors, specifically Peter Sarsgaard as Robert F. Kennedy. He showed a lot of depth, especially in the weakness that RFK had in that situation. One great scene is where he and Jackie discuss the legacy JFK will leave, of how he will probably only be remembered for ending a war he started, and they’ll only be known as the “Pretty Family”. It’s a scene that captures the Kennedys in their most dire moment, and Jackie the only one that can pick up the pieces. Greta Gerwig is also great with the limited amount of screen time she has, but each character has their purpose and supports Jackie and helps flesh her out in their own little way. I'd also like to add that the actor playing John F. Kennedy freaks me out because he looks scarily similar to JFK to the point where you’d think the filmmakers used some next generation CGI to bring him to the screen.
What really lifts this above most biopics is the cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine, and the score by Mica Levi. While they are two separate aspects of the film, they both add significant layers of dimension and elevate the overall quality of the overall film. I wasn’t a fan of Fontaine’s cinematography in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, but his decisions here make Jackie one of the best productions shot on film since Carol. I was extremely impressed with how he shot the White House tour and with how authentic it looked to the actual black-and-white footage; his team got it down exactly from the angle of her head to her body movements. Fontaine’s most impressive shots however, are during the funeral where all you see is Jackie in a sea filled with mourning Americans. It's also in this moment where Mica Levi’s score is also used to perfect effect. While I still prefer Levi’s score for Under the Skin, this was beautiful on its own, capturing the sense of tragedy from just using a single instrument in some cases. What makes Jackie’s score even more gracious is when it shows the mood and thoughts of Jackie in certain scenes. During scenes in the motorcade the music would be loud and gregarious, showing the devastating emotions of Jackie in that moment. This might be the best score of 2016 next to Moonlight, and we need more films to be scored by Mica Levi.
In short, Jackie is one of those films that I can definitely say will change how biopics are made, as it's one of the most formally ambitious of the subgenre since perhaps Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. With beautiful cinematography, a gorgeous and haunting score, and the best performance of 2016, it's not just a towering achievement, but by far the best film I've seen all year.