There are moments throughout history that act bookmarks in time, they shock everyone, and cause a range of emotion, that differ from person to person, depending on their level of connectivity to the issue. November 22nd, 1963 is one of those days, the moment a nation lost its leader, that people still remember where they were when they heard about it, and a day that made a stoic newsman struggle to report the death on live television. There have been many films over the course of the last fifty plus years that have covered a great many aspects of President John F. Kennedy’s time in office, and the aftermath of his tragic death, but the film Jackie takes a different approach, focusing instead on the First Lady, at key points before, during, and after the assassination.
The film is told during three specific timelines, with some extra scenes sprinkled in to give a more well-rounded sense of who the First Lady was, in her time in the White House. The film opens up in Massachusetts, as Jackie Kennedy, played by an excellent Natalie Portman, is granting her first interview in the aftermath of the shooting, only a week after it took place. The film then spends its time, cutting between the interview, the days after the assassination, and the famous televised tour the First Lady gave of the White House in 1962. While the bulk of the film deals with the complex range of emotions following the death of the President, the scenes of the White House tour, add a great deal to the story, because it shows the First Lady as more than just a grieving widow trying to hold her life together, it shows that she was her own person, and that she meant more to the country then what her typical depiction is. The interview segments are also particularly good, as Jackie tells her version of who her husband was, and how important he was to both his family, and the country. She controls the interview, giving the interviewer Theodore White, played by Billy Crudup, just as much as she wants to him to know, including items that she the strikes from the record, frustrating White because they are usually true and extremely personal feelings, but not ones that she is willing to share the world over. These moments paint a clear picture of just how much in control Mrs. Kennedy was, despite living through such a horrible tragedy. The real stand out moments though come in the scenes as Jackie deals with all of the events that come in the days after that November morning in Dallas, as she has to inform her children of the death of their father, already the third death she has had to endure after tragic deaths of two previous children, she has to make funeral arrangements, and she needs to begin the process of moving out of the White House, and deciding where she plans to live. These scenes are of course very tense, and they encapsulate what can only be the most difficult thing somebody has to endure. The film does an excellent job in all aspects of telling this story, from the dialogue, to the emotions captured from each of the characters, and by shifting the spotlight away from the President, or even other high-ranking White House personnel, makes for a far more personal story, and the film shines as a result.
When you attempt to tell a story such as this, it cannot succeed without standout performances, because if the acting was sub par, then the moments where you are supposed to connect with somebody experiencing this terrible tragedy, would fall completely flat, and luckily this film does not suffer from that problem. Natalie Portman is the standout, as she carries this film throughout. Her performance is all things it needs to be, when it needs to be them, and so when she shows emotion at the loss the character is feeling, it connects. This is not to say that all of Jackie is filled with emotional scenes, because of the inclusion of the earlier White House tour sequences, Portman is able to play a happier Jackie, one who gets to show off her passion for restoring the decor of the White House. In the interview scenes as well, she gets to be strong-willed, and controls the tone of the interview, and with each different segment of the film, Portman is able to encapsulate the character, and bring life to the film. The rest of the cast is good as well, Crudup’s journalist is able to convey the complex nature of interviewing the recent widow, and his facial expressions as he hesitates to ask questions show how conflicted he is about the whole experience. Peter Sarsgaard is also quite good as Robert Kennedy, who is both a support for Jackie, and her only real connection to the political goings on, after LBJ takes the oath of office. His character has some great moments conversing with Portman, and really shows how the late President’s brother is dealing with the events, in a much different way than the First Lady. The only real negative in some of the performances though outside of Portman, are the different accents, the Kennedy family ones in particular, which while Bostonian in nature, have their own distinct cadence that at some points is quite good, and in others falters, though never takes you completely out of the film.
Director Pablo Larrain crafts a wonderfully shot film, that conveys an older sense of style, that roots this film firmly in 1963. There are shots that feel like they belong in movie from the 60’s, and the scenes meant to mimic TV footage feel absolutely authentic. These shots are mixed in with some real footage and audio from the White House tour special, as well as footage of the funeral procession, and their inclusion never feels overused, jarring, or out of place, which is a testament to how well the new footage was crafted. The film also benefits from a fantastic score, which enhances many of the most dramatic moments. The score also knows when not to be present, as there a quite a few scenes where there is silence, and it feels correctly placed in those moments because it usually comes when Jackie is alone, and the lack of music adds gravity to the moment, and enhances the experience.
There is always a risk to Oscar season biopics, many try to hard, or focus on the wrong elements of the person’s life, and the film suffers as a result. What Jackie does well is gives depth to a person who is typically only shown as the grieving widow, and it does so with several wonderful performances, superb direction, and a fantastic score. While there are some elements that do not work, the film does not feel bloated or bogged down as a result. Jackie will be sure to garner further awards consideration this season, and it is totally justifiable, as this a very well crafted, and incredibly well acted film.