Jackie – Review

Worth seeing: for Natalie Portman's precise and complex performance as tragedy turns a 20th Century icon from a naive cover-girl wife to a media-savvy legacy-setting widow
Director:Pablo Larraín
Featuring:Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Caspar Phillipson, Greta Gerwig, John Carroll Lynch, John Hurt, Richard E Grant
Length:100 minutes
Certificate:15
Country:Chile, France, US
Released:20th January 2017

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Few people won’t know about the historic events that rocked the world on 22nd November 1963, as America’s 35th President, John F Kennedy, was assassinated, while travelling through Dallas, in an open-topped limousine, with his wife, Jackie (Natalie Portman).

The story has been told many times, from different points of view.

Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s version is less interested in the events themselves but the affect they had on his widow, as he brings us a handful of moments in her life, before and after the murder.

The narrative flits between an interview given to a journalist (Billy Crudup), shortly after the assassination, Jackie’s appearance on American TV, showing the American people around the White House, soon after her husband came to power, the planning of JFK’s funeral, the reburial of the couple’s two dead children alongside their father – and, of course, the shooting itself.

There’s little about who killed JFK or why. This is a film about Jackie, how she handled the horrific death of her husband, in her own lap, and the part that played in turning a naive and young – the third-youngest US First Lady up until that time, we’re told – woman into a hardened, cynical widow in search of meaning in her life – and her husband’s death.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

This is not your usual biopic. It’s not about the life of one of the most iconic women of the Twentieth Century, or even a part of it. This is a film, essentially, about how Jackie Kennedy learned to use the media to her advantage as she set out, single-handedly, to determine her husband’s legacy for the rest of the world.

A president who was assassinated less than three years after taking office will inevitably be remembered as the president who was assassinated less than three years after taking office – but his short time in the Oval Office also meant that he wasn’t able to see through many of the policies for which he might otherwise have been remembered – while politically, he didn’t have a chance to undo damage caused by things that didn’t go so well.

Consequently, there was a danger that the poster-boy of American politics might just have been that – a photogenic superstar, cut down in his prime – before he had a chance to build his legacy.

This film jumps back and forth in time, but the earliest moments we see are a naive young woman, immaculately dressed, playing White House tour-guide – doing and saying the right thing, smiling on cue – we witness the assassination and its immediate aftermath – and meet a woman wisened by the brief experience of office and the tragic experience of the most public of losses, feeding a respected journalist with lines that will ensure her husband is remembered in the most favourable light, turning him from a shallow poster-boy to a romantic fairytale king. Finally, we see her explaining – perhaps even defending her actions to a priest (John Hurt), insisting that she believes “the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us.”

Natalie Portman convincingly inhabits every iteration of Jackie, from the mannered voice, nervous smile and subservience of the early days, to the confident, controlling, chain-smoking writer of history.

Only Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy and Billy Crudup’s journalist get much of a look-in, with other – bigger – figures in history being sidelined in this woman’s personal story.

The structure of intertwined conversations is interesting, but doesn’t by definition make them any more cinematic. Indeed, in this case, it’s unnecessary, and what would have been a clever and revealing script anyway comes close to becoming confused and jeopardising the emotional impact of the tragedy for the viewers. The story would have been, perhaps, more compelling had it been told chronologically, so that we could learn with the protagonist and witness more keenly how quickly her circumstances forced her to grow, rather than be thrown around, trying to work out which Jackie we are spending time with, to little dramatic advantage.

Visually, Pablo Larraín’s direction is more successful, as he provides clues by changing the hues, tones and even aspect ratios of the images according to where we are in the story, making much of the film resemble contemporary television news footage. It’s also interesting that for much of the interview scene, as the pair talk directly into the camera.

Perhaps more than anything, a poignant element of the whole exercise is the film’s UK release date conveniently coming on the very same day that another fashion-icon, celebrity First Lady was moving into the White House.