For 2016’s Jackie, the bar of expectation is set extraordinarily high given the immense level of detail, history and sizable legacy of the Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Chilean director Pablo Larraín, while an unusual choice for such a uniquely American story, focuses on Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy’s role in writing the lasting impressions of that legacy. Starring Natalie Portman in the titular role, the film begins after the events of the assassination of her husband. Using a narrative construct familiar to many biopics, the events of the film’s timeline occur through an interview between Jackie Kennedy and Life magazine writer Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). Largely told between the interview and numerous flashbacks, Jackie explores the grief surrounding the death of her husband and the conflicting sentiment of Jackie Kennedy regarding her marriage, family, fame and legacy.
From the beginning, Jackie is presented with a reflective and visually poetic flair reminiscent of the latter day works of Terrence Malick. Sliced and diced into numerous flashback sequences exploring Jackie Kennedy’s recollections of the horrific assassination of her husband, much of the film is hinged on its editing as it creates the deliberative pacing of the film’s subject. Unlike most biopics involving a political figure or prominent political family dynasty, the film feels considerably less like a reading or dramatic rendition of history and more like the encapsulation of a human being’s viewpoint. As Jackie Kennedy, Portman’s performance initially comes off as contrived, particularly in attempting to capture Kennedy’s distinctive accent. However, as the film progresses, Portman fleshes out the different shades of Kennedy, which paint a sometimes emotionally erratic picture. Jackie Kennedy’s public demeanor is portrayed as controlled yet sweetly giving, while her private persona is imperious and overly-defensive. This creates a complex and shifting inner dynamic, constantly keeping the audience without a full understanding of who Kennedy truly is inside.
As a film, the weight of Jackie is found more in its leading performance and refined aesthetics than its storytelling. Delicately photographed by Stéphane Fontaine, the cinematography is broodingly morose yet sweepingly spiritual in feeling. Carefully stitched together by film editor Sebastián Sepúlveda, the film’s narrative order is littered with flashbacks but by its end, it feels as if its sequencing is unworkable in any other order. The production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling stylishly document a bygone era in American life and fashion without imposing its presence. The music score by Mica Levi beautifully poses emotional orchestral contradictions in its strings of consonance followed by dissonance, reflecting the main character’s temperamental shifts. Still, Jackie lacks the size and detail of its subject. It focuses more on the grief-stricken, angst-ridden musings of Kennedy than it does the very things underpinning the root of that grief and anger expressed by Kennedy such as her rocky marriage and the onerous expectations of the political, social, family, public and media circles her marriage conditioned her to. In trading away the basis for the emotion in favor of waxing poetic over it, Jackie lacks the power it might have had. While it’s an interesting cinematic excursion into the mind of Jackie Kennedy after the JFK assassination, it lacks the storytelling proportions to make it as astoundingly compelling as its enormous sociopolitical figures, events and history demands it to be.