Pablo Larraín’s Jackie towers grandly and unearths intimately in its microscopic examination of the thoughts and actions of one of America’s most loved First Ladies in the days and weeks immediately following her husband’s assassination. It’s an unavoidably emotional story but Larrain is chiefly concerned with more intellectual pursuits. Namely, he asks us to ponder what history chooses to remember about major figures and events and why.
Jackie unfolds over five distinct timelines. The briefest but most important is the assassination itself on November 22nd, 1963. The longest–the trunk of the narrative–follows Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) from the moments directly following the murder of her husband and continues through the funeral. We also return repeatedly to the hour-long tour of the White House the First Lady gave for network television. Finally, the dual framing devices are an interview with a Life magazine reporter (Billy Crudup) and a long talk with a priest (John Hurt). Larraín and editor Sebastián Sepúlveda fracture these five strains and piece them back together as a mosaic. The mortar that holds it all together and binds it into one is Mica Levi’s gorgeous, somber score of orchestral tones.
Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine offer up a presentational look, often centering the main characters from the shoulder up and looking directly ahead or framing conversations with two characters facing one another in close-up profiles. First off, this approach requires a great deal of trust in the actors to live up to the command of the screen they’re given. Luckily, they don’t let Larraín down, especially his lead actor; the portrayal of raw, sudden grief while desperately clinging to etiquette and protocol is the crowning performance of Portman’s career so far. Moreover, Jackie’s somewhat affected aesthetic is a comment on its own metatextual nature. We are never quite allowed to forget that we are watching Portman play Jackie Kennedy as she, in turn, plays the various roles assigned to her, for the public in front of those CBS cameras, for her children when she has to tell them their father is dead, for those members of the press she can’t control and many more, in increments throughout her day and life. Ronald Reagan once wondered, “How can a President not be an actor?” That may be even truer of a First Lady. More than once, Jackie insists that cameras capture the truth, while Larraín’s choice to shoot on 16mm film provides a level of grain which serves as a constant reminder that what we are watching was itself captured by a camera and is only as true as we decide to believe it is.
“I believe that the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us,” says Jackie. And as we see, her actions before and after her husband’s death bore out her conviction. What the public and sometimes even the President saw as her frivolous vanities—expensive redecorations to the White House, a miles-long funeral procession on foot, carefully coordinated outfits like the black dress she dons and then explains to her children, “This is how we dress when something sad happens”—were actually a part of building history. Whether you call it tradition, decorum, ceremony, pageantry or, in the modern parlance, optics, the major events of our past are better remembered when they’re embellished with little flourishes. Like the spices that delay the spoilage of foods, it’s these touches that preserve legacies.
This is how real people become mythical and, as Jackie continually reminds us, our leaders are first and foremost real people. As Bill Walton, the Kennedy’s artist friend who assisted Jackie first in decorations and then in funeral arrangements, played marvelously by Richard E. Grant, says of the White House, “Real men lived here.” Later, Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) will remind us that Abraham Lincoln was “an ordinary man” when he ended slavery with the stroke of a pen. These reminders that flesh and blood humans can will themselves into the history books plays a bit differently than it was likely intended, now that we as a nation find ourselves on the terrifying threshold of a new kind of presidency. The cold comfort we are offered is that no one at all ever knows how things are going to turn out. The Kennedys and their administration had no idea if John Kennedy would come to be lauded in the same breath as Lincoln or if he’d be like James Garfield or William McKinley, remembered only for having been assassinated. They didn’t even know how the rest of his presidency might have gone; Robert is jealous that Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) will get Vietnam.
Jackie is a film about the Kennedy legacy but it’s also a part of it. It’s as beautifully and evidently staged as the tour the First Lady herself gave on primetime television. That’s not a knock, though; that’s what makes it so vital. It’s a part of our tradition. This is how we immortalize a great woman.