There have been movies before Jackie, and there will be movies after Jackie. But don’t let it be forgot(ie), that for one brief, shining moment there was a Jackie.
Among many other things, Jackie is a film about legacy. Amidst the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) tries to secure the legacy of her deceased husband. Speaking in an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup, playing a version of Life magazine’s Theodore H. White) just four days after JFK’s burial, Jackie refers to her husband’s presidency as a Camelot, referring to the popular Lerner and Loewe musical that JFK enjoyed.
Jackie’s reference to JFK’s presidency as a mythical experience, cut off too soon and never to be replicated is interesting when placed in the context of Jackie’s earlier assertion of wanting “only the best” – of culture, décor, etc. – to be within the White House. It only makes sense that she would want her husband’s death and her subsequent loss of prominence not to occur in vain. Directed by Pablo Larraín, it would be an ironic shame if this movie were overlooked by history because it is truly a masterpiece.
Although the plotline revolves around the events directly following JFK’s assassination in Dallas, the film is more of a programmed piece. The story is told nonlinearly, cutting between conversations with a priest (John Hurt), the production of a 1962 white house tour and the planning of JFK’s funeral with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Because these scenes appear numerous times throughout the film, and because the movie is much more concerned with character than narrative, there is a certain sense of timelessness within the film. I’ve spoken to a few people who were frustrated by the lack of perceived control this allowed them, and I think I understand. It’s not necessarily an easy or a “fun” movie. But holy Jackie I was transfixed.
Written by Noah Oppenheim (don’t let his Maze Runner credit confuse you, this is a marvelous screenplay), sequences are framed around the aforementioned interview with Life magazine, which puts the director and the audience in an interesting role. On one hand, Jackie Kennedy’s goal is to set in stone the Kennedy legacy, on her terms. On the other hand, the existence of the camera (and an outside force editing) takes this level of control away from Jackie for the audience.
The movie doesn’t take this responsibility lightly. A majority of the film is shot in an extreme close-up of Jackie Kennedy’s face. It’s an extraordinarily bold choice and one that provides loads of intimacy from start to finish.
If my description of Jackie Kennedy sounds unflattering up to this point, it’s because I’m not doing her (and the film) justice. In Jackie, she is complex and layered. She deals with a tremendous amount of grief while attending to what she feels are her responsibilities.
There is no doubt in my mind that this complexity and intimacy would be completely mishandled if given to a lesser actress. Natalie Portman owns the essence of Jackie Kennedy from the very first frame (okay, to be honest, I hadn’t watched a lot of archival footage before the screening, but the choices were so strong that I was inclined to believe them (and upon further review, I still think she does a fantastic job)). Portman conveys the various stages of grief with admirable intensity, and we are lucky to have the opportunity to witness it projected onto a 50-foot screen.
Of the many remarkable aspects of Jackie, one of the most stunning is the cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine. Shot on Super 16mm film (just like Carol (which is fitting because Jackie is my new Carol)), the colors are distinct, and the film has a grainy, archival feel. This choice of film stock is such a fantastic decision because the movie is constantly blending archival (both created and found) and regular footage.
The score by Mica Levi (a sophomore effort from the Under the Skin composer) is simultaneously haunting and grieving. It lingers on the idea that something bad has happened and that trauma will haunt Jackie for a long time. You know that feeling you get in your chest when you are anticipating or have just experienced something awful (even as minimal as a breakup or a bad test)? Instead of relying on traditional sad melodies, the score grabs onto your sense of anxiety and never lets go.
Jackie is an absolute blur. Edited and constructed magically by Sebastían Sepúlveda, the film builds and builds in intensity until we finally arrive at the long-awaited funeral. As the movie built to its climax, I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing a moment. For me, Jackie was a mesmerizing, religious experience.
Still, I understand why others might have been disappointed. With a movie moving at such a fast pace and so “in your face”, if you’re not into it, it can feel empty. That’s why I especially hesitate against saying that people who didn’t enjoy it are “wrong” (but boy do I want to). Instead, I’m mostly just sad that they didn’t have the transcendent experience that I did. Jackie isn’t necessarily an easy movie to watch, and it’s certainly not a fun movie, but I was definitely taken by it, and I hope you’ll tolerate my obsession with it through the foreseeable future. There will be movies after Jackie, but there won’t be another Jackie – not another Jackie.