Cast: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Caspar Phillipson
Director: Pablo Larrain
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The difficulties in representing both the contextual specificity of history as well as the interpersonal dynamics surrounding famous figures is something to which cinema has always wrestled. Biopics are often maligned for being overly reverential and sticking too closely with familiar beats; i.e. the troubled childhood, the neglectful father, the drug years, the incredible rise and tragic fall, etc. Pablo Larrain's Jackie purports to be an inversion of the standard biopic tropes; offering us a window into the disorienting headspace of its central figure sans historical specificity and context. However, though the film strains to be an immersive anti-biopic, it comes across just as inauthentic and contrived as the usual Oscar bait because it fails to illuminate our understanding of the events depicted beyond mere broad strokes.
Larrain's aesthetic seeks to rub our faces in Jacqueline Kennedy's grief; using prolonged closeups, askew angles, and long tracking shots in order to distill the notion that we are peeking behind the curtain. However, beyond showing us how awful it would be to see your husband's head blown off while cradling his brains, Jackie offers nothing in the way of psychological insight.
The notion that the grieving First Lady carefully arranged the country's perception after John F. Kennedy's death; massaging his legacy by deconstructing and rebuilding his public image, is fascinating, but Larrain isn't a graceful enough filmmaker to handle this idea. Instead, his film revels in exploitation, gawking at suffering as if this was some kind of psycho-horror drama. Certainly, filmmakers have the right to toss aside context in lieu of artistic license, but this is not an act of empathy, but of sensationalism. Scenes where Jackie stumbles around the White House, draped in a blood-stained dress as the camera follows her in carefully planned tracking shots set to Mica Levi's atonal score, feel less like an introspection of grief then a director's very particular way of showing off his arty aspirations. To wit, a prolonged sequence where Jackie describes in lurid detail her husband's skull being blasted apart, complete with twitching eyelids and quivering lips, comes off like an SNL parody of a self-serious art film rather than an honest reflection of emotional devastation.
Part of the problem with moments like these is Natalie Portman's performance. Certainly, this is one of those impossible roles, but instead of attempting to capture the spirit of Jackie, Portman goes full camp; adopting a mannered speech pattern while unconvincingly playing dress up. Jackie Kennedy is portrayed here as both a shell-shocked mess as well as a no-nonsense strategist, but tonally, Larrain can't decide what kind of biopic he wants to make. The film hop-scotches around in time; giving us some immediate post-assassination scenes, dramatically inert magazine interview scenes opposite Billy Crudup, and baffling moments featuring a priest (John Hurt) where life's greatest mysteries are pondered.
All of the picture's time-jumping is presented, of course, in a somber and self-indulgent aesthetic which leaves out anything even approaching an honest character study. There's a suggestion here that history is formed through perception rather than through reality, but as a film, Jackie abstractly dramatizes history in a way which strips it of its contextual meaning. Without context or specificity, we are left with an offensive display of historical misery-porn which purposefully distances itself from the audience. Only Mica Levi's off-kilter score; complete with rising and falling strings, and a few moments of warmth with a nearly unrecognizable Greta Gerwig as longtime aide Nancy Tuckerman, can soften the blow of ghoulish exploitation. The former First Lady deserved better.