Jackie (Pablo Larraín, 2016)
Every once and a while, a film will deviate from the standards of its genre in such a way that a new film paradigm is born. In 1994 Pulp Fiction ushered in a new era of independent cinema. The 400 Blows changed the landscape for French film forever when it introduced the world to new wave in 1959. Citizen Kane, while sacrilegious to evoke, invoked decades worth of progress to the dramatic character study in 1941. With any luck, Jackie will usher in a new age of the much-maligned biopic transforming it from an artless point by point retelling of the subject’s life to an emotional experience allowing the viewer to experience the life of the actual person. A chance to transport oneself into some of the most important people and moments in history and understand the personal impacts.
While Jackie is not Citizen Kane, it is in my opinion far and away the best film of an amazing year in cinema, and one of the best films in recent memory. Pablo Larraín deviates from the traditional biopic formula by shrinking the timeline from an entire life to a mere three days. This succinct period allows the film to focus on the emotional rollercoaster inherent in dealing with the tragic, unexpected death of a spouse while balancing it with the need to create and preserve a legacy all while under the biggest spotlight know to the world at that time. The mind of Jackie is a cluster, but the audience is welcome to its every whim.
Larraín expresses Jackie’s overwhelmed state of confusion by letting the timeline flow in a non-traditional manner. While still following an approximate chronological order, the events are played out as Jackie understands them. Events on the day of the assassination Jackie always appears in the same outfit, never completely clean of the blood, but all other days the outfit will change from scene to scene. This isn’t a continuity error on Larraín’s part, but an understanding of the fragmented state of her memory. As the film is distinctly Jackie’s story, her broken psyche causes unimportant details to slip in exchange for doing her jobs as a widow, a mother of fatherless children, a former first lady, and a woman in charge of preserving the legacy of a great man.
The way that each of these personas are juggled is inspiring. The film intertwines moments where Jackie is quite obviously unraveling with ones where she is almost robotic in her decision making and control. Two particularly moving sequences exemplify this juxtaposition. At one moment, Jackie is aimlessly wandering around the second-floor living quarters of the White House. She opens all the doors, dresses and undresses multiple times, packs and unpacks all without purpose while listening to musical soundtracks. It is in this moment that Jackie feels the most relatable as she experiences pain and grief like anyone would. Contrastly, when confronted with the prospect of burying her husband at the family plot in Brookline, Massachusetts, Jackie’s sense of legacy overtakes any emotions that she may be experiencing. She insists that Arlington is the only reasonable place for her husband to be buried, and on a gloomy day leads a group of men through the cemetery in search of the perfect resting place. In this moment, Jackie shows how much power she possesses. Trudging her way through the mud in heels, the powerful men scamper to keep up with her resigning themselves to her decision.
Nathalie Portman is absolutely perfect as Jackie. Her dedication into perfecting the speech and mannerisms of the real Jackie Kennedy Onassis results in a nigh uncanny resemblance. She replicates the infamous White House tour in flashbacks allowing for seamless transitions between stock footage and reenactment. The gauntlet has been thrown, and any director should seriously consider alternatives to ever casting this role again.
Portman’s impeccable performance extends beyond pure mimicry. Larraín employs the high risk high reward technique of shooting the film almost exclusively in close-up. Had Portman not been able to exhibit each of the wide array of emotions with expertise, the decision would have backfired on Larraín leaving him with a mess. Instead, her every facial expression and word transports the audience into the room with her. Both crying and cheering for her as the scene dictates. It’s because of this decision that the compact timeline thrives. A lifetime’s emotional journey is imparted on the viewer without bogging them down with lengthy details.
This representation of Jackie eclipses the unfortunate pseudo feminist cliché of strong female character. It understands that reality is more important than strength when portraying a fully formed woman. Make no mistake, there are extensive moments in the film where Jackie is far and away the strongest persona in the room, but it’s the balance between that and her understandable weakness as a grief filled widow that makes her real. Far too often, men’s attempts at appearing feminist will result in the creation of a Mary Sue, but Larraín understands that it’s the truth behind the real person, inclusive of weaknesses, that creates one of the greatest feminist figures.
Jackie is as close to perfect as a film can be. While the exclusively character driven presentation may deter some viewers who prefer a plot heavy story, the film still should be necessary viewing. Larraín portrays a greater understanding of the person that Jackie Kennedy Onassis was in only three days’ worth of events than any film focusing on her entire life ever could. The end reminder that Jackie was the true originator of the term Camelot to represent the Kennedy legacy, hopefully mirrors the future in which Jackie is remembered as equally legendary.