Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Jackie Kennedy is an interesting figure in pop culture. She’s an instantly recognizable figure, yet little is really known about her. Famous for her fashion and her stoicism in the face of her husband’s assassination, Jackie exists now more as an icon, rather than a person. Pablo Larrain’s Jackie seeks to show is the human behind the icon.
Rather than focus on her whole life, Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim focus on a period that defined both Jackie and a nation: The days after her husband’s assassination. Specifically, the interview with Life journalist Theodore H. White. The interview is the perfect framing device for the film, using Jackie’s words (from books, official documents, and interviews) and flashbacks to paint a portrait of Jackie’s time in the White House.
The film goes to great length to show the Jackie’s complex relationship with her role as First Lady. We as viewers are able to revel with her as she dances with her husband or attends a concert, but there is a noticeable sense of sadness and exasperation underneath it all. She is criticized for her White House restoration project and her fashion, which are deemed too extravagant and too expensive. In response, Jackie puts on a smile as she gives a tour or the White House to defend her project, terrified that she may not come across as “relatable.”
Larrain, along with cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and composer Mica Levi do a great job setting Jackie’s mood for each scene- anxiety when she is giving a tour of the White House, panic when her husband is killed, and a sense of isolation that permeates the entire film. Levi’s score is so haunting, that even when Jackie is surrounded by people, there’s still the sense that she is the loneliest person on earth.
Of course, the film would not work if there wasn’t a capable actress in the role, and Natalie Portman carries the film. While she does not resemble the First Lady, Portman makes up for it with her vocal and physical work. The role of Jackie Kennedy is one that can and has veer more into parody/mimicry than performance, but Portman has clearly studied Jackie’s vocal infection and body language, and her performance feels genuine and lived in. Portman is fine as the camera-ready Jackie. However, she comes alive as the “real” Jackie. She brings biting sarcasm, wit, bitterness, and quiet rage to the performance, giving complexity to a woman who was little more than the beautiful wife in previous films.
Jackie is a welcome anomaly in the realm of pop culture. The JFK assassination is a staple in entertainment, inspiring everything from Oliver Stone’s JFK to Stephen King’s 11.22.63. However, Jackie is rarely a part of the story, despite her presence. Her story appears to end with her quietly mourning her husband, while men try to uncover the conspiracy, or go back in time to stop the assassination. She exists in pop culture as “poor Jackie”, the tragic figure whose cheating husband was killed in front of her. This film is refreshing not just because Jackie is the center of the narrative, but because Larrain, Portman, and Oppenheim refuse to make her into a victim. The Jackie we see is a woman who knew she had to play to the cameras and knew of her husband’s dalliances, and didn’t want to be written off as the poor naïve wife. After 50 years of being reduced to a fashion plate and a widow, it’s refreshing to see Jackie saying she didn’t want to be famous, she “just happened to marry a Kennedy”, and demanding that she have a say in the narrative.
It’s easy to recommend Jackie on merit alone. The film is well directed and well-acted, both by lead and supporting cast. But it’s more important to recommend Jackie for what it accomplishes. It makes Jackie the center of the story, giving her a voice and a fury that our culture has denied for so many years.