“I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.”
Apart from being a biographical drama, Jackie is primarily a film about grief in the face of tragedy. The nightmarish brutality of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the agonizing sadness in the days that follow not only sets the tone of the entire film, but for the characters as well. There is an unmistakable sense of a dream-like bleakness that threatens to suffocate the characters after experiencing unimaginable violence and death. In this regard, director Pablo Larrain’s film stands out from others in its genre due to its haunting but beautiful quality.
All this is accomplished through the overall look and atmosphere of the film. Jackie isn’t shot, designed, or scored like your usual biographical drama. Absent is the soft lighting and dramatic musical score that normally saturates films of this kind. In its place is a natural, gritty look that perfectly blends in with the real-life stock footage taken during the period, along with an eerie but delicate musical score that sometimes feels like it belongs more in a horror film than a drama.
Apart from its unique style, a great majority of the film is suffused in great anguish, and whatever sense of hope it presents either before or after the incident is still shadowed by the pain of loss. Make no mistake about it: Jackie is a heavy film that embraces and captures all the powerful emotions that such an event would cause. But despite this, the film is never overwhelming in its despair because there is a natural beauty that comes through all the pain. Its intimate and personal approach to the assassination humanizes a national tragedy by keeping its perspective singular.
Jackie’s character development in the film is framed entirely by the incident. Exploring how she faced the aftermath speaks a lot about her character and is the primary driving force of the film. When we are first introduced to Jackie, she’s meeting with a reporter and bluntly tells him how the interview will be controlled and edited entirely by her. Anything that she doesn’t want to be published will be removed, and through the course of the film she immediately takes it upon herself to excise a lot of the more vulnerable revelations that she accidentally let slip.
This obsession with how the public perceives her speaks a lot about her own vanity. But as we eventually discover, this vanity is not driven by ego or selfishness, but by Jackie’s respect of the legacy and importance of the American Presidency. Her famous televised tour of the White House is in many ways Jackie’s most memorable accomplishment during her tenure as the First Lady, which is something that the film keeps coming back to right up to the end. It’s shown that Jackie has deep respect for the Presidents that came before her husband and the rich history of the White House. It might seem silly, but in her eyes preserving the legacy of the historical figures in the very same place where they lived is an important and necessary aspect of the U.S. Presidency.
This is of course not just limited to the interior decoration of the White House. Even in the face of death, the dignity and grace of the Presidency must be preserved for all to see, which is a fact that Jackie eventually insists on even with the very real threat of violence in a public march. Is it vainglorious? Oh yes. But it isn’t silly. Jackie herself admits it, because the public march satisfies both the legacy of the Presidency as well as her vanity. Even more than that, it also speaks to the quiet desperation of Jackie’s desire to die with her husband as she admits to wishing that someone would kill her during the march so that she doesn’t have to do it herself.
It’s in these moments that Natalie Portman’s breathtaking portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy shines even brighter. On top of the technically challenging task of flawlessly capturing the real Jackie Kennedy’s voice, expressions, and intonations, Portman breathes complex life into a figure who’s most known for her iconic beauty and not much else. Not satisfied with merely giving Jackie a tragic, emotional depth, Portman also portrays her as a multi-faceted, complicated figure who treated her public persona differently from her personal life. The real beauty is in the subtleties of Portman’s performance, because it’s something that can take multiple viewings to fully appreciate.
Even more impressive is how Portman manages to execute all this while maintaining the quality of grace, poise, and refinement that the real Jackie Kennedy is most known for. This is no mere imitation of a real-life figure. It’s a stunning portrayal of someone whose pain feels astonishingly real and visceral. The scene of Jackie in the midst of immense emotional suffering while wiping her husband’s blood off her face is one of the most powerful depictions of raw anguish ever put on film.
Hindered only by some pacing issues during the second act, Jackie is an exquisitely-made drama that takes a refreshing approach to the biographical genre. Director Pablo Larrain infuses Jackie with a bold vision that elevates it from the mundane conventions that Hollywood biography dramas have been restricted with for years. There is an artistic and emotional honesty in Jackie that few films embrace each year. This rareness of quality should be appreciated every time it appears, because when it’s done with such effectiveness as in Jackie, the result is truly one-of-a-kind.