My immediate thought coming out of Jackie during AFI Fest the other day was that I never, ever wanted to see it again.
Mind you, it isn’t because the film is bad. Far from it. It’s an extraordinary, elegant, and graceful work of cinema, but it’s also one of those films that has the ability to crush you to the very core, leaving out any desire to watch it again.
But to bring it back a bit, the film follows Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband, John F. Kennedy’s assassination. We see her at some time after the event, taking part in a one-on-one interview with journalist, Theodore White (Billy Crudup). We get flashbacks to moments before, during, and after the assassination, with most of it being after. We witness Jackie being forced to come to terms with her husband’s death, plan his funeral arrangements, perverse his legacy, and prepare to leave the White House as Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) takes over the presidency.
Three themes are regularly brought up in Jackie, sorrow, tradition, and legacy. The character of Jackie acts as the vessel in which these themes come into play. It’s a film that is able to personalize and humanize all the historical baggage and context through the characters. We feel each moment of Jackie’s sorrow, even if she has to play the part of a strong, focused public figure, and all while sharing her grief with the entire country. She plays emotionally cold, but it serves to highlight her vulnerability. A handful of moments with a Priest (John Hurt) allow her to open up. The death of JFK has put her in a shock. And that shock is beautifully captured by cinematographer, Stéphane Fontaine, and composer, Mica Levi. Both of their work combined captures the emotionally overwhelming daze after experiencing trauma with such effectiveness that each moment feels like you’re confined in a space with pressure building, and there’s no way out.
Jackie is a character that is always looking to tradition for answers. When she is giving a filmed tour of the White House, she fondly talks of the care being put into the old furniture and how they go hand in hand with the things that she brings in. Tradition is comforting, it’s familiar, it offers something when you feel that there is no alternative. Even after the assassination, she looks back at Lincoln’s funeral and how they memorialized him. This ultimately ties into the idea of legacy, and how one controls and shapes the stories of an individual after they pass. Jackie talks to Theodore about the various things that she is willing to let him publish and not publish. She takes firm control of the image of JFK and Camelot, over the days, weeks, months, and how the public views those images.
In a scene, she uses James Garfield and William McKinley as examples of the U.S. presidents who were assassinated, and more or less faded from relevancy. The only one who hasn’t faded was Abraham Lincoln, but he had something he fought for, JFK had yet to truly make an impact in truly meaningful ways. Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) expresses the same thought in a gut wrenching moment, pondering about the many things JFK would’ve accomplished had he been given the time. However, the one thing JFK has brought is the idea of creating an image, which speaks to how iconic and memorable of a figure he was despite not having done much. Jackie continues that. Shaping, manipulating, and preserving the very specific time and place in American history. This is what brings her to say, “there will be great presidents again, but not another camelot.”
On a personal level, I found Jackie to be profoundly moving. As someone who has experienced a death in the family just over a year ago, I could see small touches of someone close to me within Natalie Portman’s performance. It made the experience overwhelming in a way that I was simply not prepared for and do not desire experiencing again. It speaks to the power of director, Pablo Larraín, screenwriter, Noah Oppenheim, and what they both brought to the film in order to make it so effective.
Jackie is, without a doubt, one of 2016’s very best films, and it is effortlessly carried by one of the year’s best performances with Natalie Portman, who is absolutely worth the price of admission alone. It’s a haunting and ethereal portrait of loss and iconography, which pierces with intense intimacy and raw emotional honesty. Pablo Larraín cements himself as a truly remarkable filmmaker, one whose work embodies a deep and profound sense of humanity and empathy, which is rarely captured with such richness, grandeur and refinement. 85/100