It’s Oscar season, which means it’s time for a slew of biopics about any number of important and/or famous people. The best of these films are those that can find a way to say something specific about their subject, rather than just attempting to tell a life story. Among this year’s crop of biopics, Jackie certainly has one of the most eye-catching subjects – former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – but does the Natalie Portman-led biopic give us any insight into the former Mrs. Kennedy?
Jackie focuses on the week or so following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with an interview the widow Jackie Kennedy (Portman) is giving to a reporter (Billy Crudup) serving as a framing device for the period of time. Early on, the reporter even acknowledges that the story he tells will be the one she tells, so there’s no mistaking that the dramatization that unfolds comes from the way she wants the story to unfold.
What follows is a disorienting series of events: Jackie holding her husband’s head, trying to keep him together as the motorcade rushes down the highway; Jackie watching Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) be sworn in as she stands in her still-bloodsoaked clothes; Jackie telling the news to her young children. The film also cuts to shots of Jackie conducting her famed televised tour of the White House, contrasting her very public persona with the off-the-record version of her shown talking and self-editing her responses with the reporter. It’s clear that Jackie is savvy enough to know what she wants her public image to be, even if it’s not an entirely accurate representation of herself.
Jackie‘s success lies on the shoulders of its director and star, without question. While Portman may seem distracting at first in her portrayal of Jackie, comparisons to the footage we have of the actual Jackie Kennedy show just how uncanny a performance Portman provides. The film’s progression allows Portman to show a wide range of emotions, from polished and poised to gut-wrenchingly heartbroken. It’s captured in spectacular fashion by director Pablo Larraín, who manages to successfully mix in archival footage with the material shot for the film by shooting the entire film on 16mm film. The score of this film is remarkable, too: composer Mica Levi’s droning horns and whirring strings aren’t the conventional biopic score, instead creating a notable sense of unease surrounding the events of the film. It’s remarkably effective.
It’s not that Jackie completely avoids the conventions of the biopic. As the film progresses, it begins to focus a significant amount of time on JFK’s funeral and Jackie’s thoughts about their legacy. But it’s hard not to feel for Jackie in these scenes: she’s clearly coming to terms with the idea that the potential for her husband’s presidency is over, and she wants to make sure that both of their contributions to America mattered in some way. Jackie ultimately acknowledges the importance of its subject, but it also makes sure to emphasize the specific pressures she would have felt at this specific point in time. It’s a remarkable examination of one of the more notable figures of the 20th century, and a more intriguing biopic than most.