A film like Pablo Larrain’s Jackie has a few obstacles from the beginning: Films that depict true events are often criticized for getting the facts straight, taking too much license (or not enough) and people tend to focus on how authentic the actors portray their real-life counterparts. In Jackie’s case, Larrain’s decision to both embrace and eschew the historical elements ultimately make the film a success.
Set during the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Jackie is told through the eyes of the title character herself (Natalie Portman) as she sits down with a journalist (Billy Crudup) in an attempt to immediately establish her husband’s legacy. The events of November 22 and the following days are shown in flashback, while Jackie puts the journalist through his paces by dictating what will and will not be on the record.
Jackie is a complex film from the start; beautiful to look at and colorful like a Douglas Sirk film through a soft filter. The film looks exquisite and one is reminded of the meticulous production design of Sirk or more recently, Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Underneath the breathtaking people and set designs (particularly the White House rooms) lies a darker vision, however. As the film begins with the opening strains of Mica Levi’s Oscar-nominated score which is so unsettling it continuously gave me the creeps as it played throughout the film, it’s clear that Jackie isn’t just going to be a pretty film. Of course any film about Jackie Kennedy is going to be impeccably costumed but she also spends much of the film in her blood and gore soaked iconic pink Chanel suit, wanting the world to see the reality of what just happened to her husband. And the film switches between either close ups of Jackie or following behind her and shoulder level, opposite angles that somehow provide the same intimate effect.
While it is a beautiful film, Jackie is not going to be for everyone. While dialogue heavy, it also rolls out at a laconic pace which could be interpreted as slow for some audiences. In fact, when I screened the film it was the third film I watched in about six hours in a crowded and oppressively hot theater and truthfully, I was ready for it to end when it did. However, I consider that feeling more circumstantial than how I really felt about the film because the more I reflected on it the more I appreciated it. I’m just saying – it’s not fast paced by any stretch.
One criticism that I’ve heard from more than one person that I couldn’t disagree with more was Larrain’s decision (Portman not included) to not cast actors that looked like or sounded like their real-life counterparts. I had no idea that Peter Sarsgaard was supposed to be Bobby Kennedy until I figured it out contextually, and John Carroll Lynch didn’t really look or sound anything like Lyndon Johnson. I think there is a fine line between mimicry and representation, and I actually appreciate that actors were not doing impressions of people we know well; at best if it’s done well it can be distracting and at worst (if it’s not) it can be laughable to the point of ruining the film.
As iconic a figure Jackie Kennedy was, she was photographed and filmed a lot more than she was interviewed so really the only point of reference a lot of us have to her speech and mannerisms was her nervous and whispery tour of the White House broadcasted on television. So whether Portman nailed her speech patterns, I don’t know – she sounded a lot like Little Edie Beale from Grey Gardens, so that would probably be about right. But her fleeting, often desperate looks coupled with some steely resolve when fighting on her late husband’s behalf were an acting tour de force that just cements Portman as one of the more talented actresses of our time. I wouldn’t necessarily seek out a film with her in it, but I do hope that she keeps making interesting film choices. Jackie is not without its flaws, but I thought it was a really good film that I look forward to watching again (in the temperature controlled comfort of my own home) to really pick up on more examples of Larrain’s vision that I may have missed the first time.