As the motorcade drove along Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963 and US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated with two gun wounds to the head, the world changed forever. Not only did this herald the coming of Nixon and the most paranoid era of the Cold War, but the mythical Zapruder footage of the event began the rise of citizen journalism that has taken precedence in the media and public consciousness in the internet age. This is a part of JFK’s legacy, a concept which Natalie Portman as his widow Jackie Kennedy wrestles with in Pablo Larraín English language debut, Jackie.
Set between the immediate aftermath of the shooting and the subsequent funeral (a tense procession through Washington), Jackie is emotionally intense and plays well to the current trend in the Biopic genre, seen in Selma and Miles Ahead, which are centred around just one pivotal moment in their subject’s life. As such, we see JFK only in the briefest of snatches, Jackie’s brief memories of the man. His absence is felt everywhere, from his family, to the cavernous White House corridors, to Lyndon B. Johnson, shown here as flustered and unsure after taking the oath of office.
The use of 16MM cinematography is an easy shorthand to nostalgia, and it gives the entire film a faint, groggy atmosphere; serving to highlight the luscious colours of the costume, which have a tactile quality. Larraín, a disciple of Tarkovsky, furthers the dreamy descent with long tracking shots across repetitive landscapes, the most striking of which is a foggy cemetery that Jackie visits, searching for somewhere to bury her husband.
Larraín is one of the more prominent names in Chilean cinema. His films, including the Pinochet era set No (his best) and Tony Manero (less successful), all explore difficult transitional moments in history and Jackie is no exception. It is interesting that when turning his vision to the USA he chooses to focus on an event that was so widely explored through television, something which he makes integral to the conceit of this movie. His outsider’s view of America treats his characters and institutional settings as one and the same: icons of an Imperial statehood; more symbolic than of any individual power. The use of archive footage before cutting to interiors of scenes creates a juxtaposition which seems to acknowledge the fiction of the film in attempting to capture the essence of Jackie’s feelings while knowing it can never truly be an accurate depiction of history.
This is what makes Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy so powerful. Her contorted face, observed from all angles, almost makes one forget what the real First Lady looked like. Her skillful portrayal of the public and private, the minutiae of different responses depending on with whom she is speaking, is an examination of performance itself. Jackie never has a big moment of grandstanding, that’s saved for Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy who solidly props her up. But the small moments tell us so much more than words can, such as her cleaning blood off her face, or making awkward eye contact with the White House’s interior designer as she leaves for the last time.
Which is precisely why the power of the Jackie is dramatically diminished by a Framing device that continually tells us what Jackie is thinking before we have a chance to see it play out for ourselves. Billy Crudup plays a reporter who interviews Jackie after the fact, isolated in her Massachusetts home. These scenes, through which we flash back to the bulk of the film, feature interesting discussion of Jackie’s thought process that undermines the surrounding footage. She talks about history and legacy and the role of the media and her unshakable guilt, themes that are already shown with great clarity and emotion, heightened by Mica Levi’s oppressive strings. One can only presume that the Crudup scenes were added to make the film more palatable to a wider audience. It has the adverse effect, gutting the film of ambiguity and attempting to put too neat a spin on the events it depicts. The relentless intimacy of the fever dream horror-show that Larraín and Portman depict Jackie enduring speaks for itself.