[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Jackie opens in limited release on Friday.]
Going into Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, I didn’t know much about Jackie Kennedy other than she was the former first lady and she was sitting next to her husband when he was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Rather than pursue a standard biopic, Larraín zeroes in on trying to understand Jackie Kennedy’s legacy when her story is inextricably linked to her husband. The deeper Jackie digs, the more interesting it becomes, and it’s due in large part to Natalie Portman’s complex, layered portrayal that wants us to see more than an icon.
The story begins one week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination with an unnamed reporter (Billy Crudup) interviewing Jackie (Portman) at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The film then flashes back to the two key events where Jackie Kennedy had the highest profile: her televised tour of the White House in 1961 and the week following the assassination. As we cut between the three time periods, we see a Jackie Kennedy who is consumed by grief but also with questions over how history will remember her and her husband.
A nice way to approach Jackie Kennedy would have been to look at her whole life and establish her as an independent woman, but that wouldn’t have been the honest approach. The harsh truth is that we remember Jackie Kennedy because we remember John F. Kennedy, and a harsher truth might be that we remember John F. Kennedy because he was assassinated in the age of television. Jackie focuses on the tougher questions of why we remember Jackie Kennedy and how she wants to be remembered. It may not be the nice approach, but it’s fair to frame her story as one related to her husband’s life and death.
Some may find that it diminishes Jackie to present her story with regards to how it related to her husband, but Jackie takes a strong point of view that finds the layers in how Jackie related to not only John, but to the American people. Rather than trying to canonize Jackie, the film works to depict her as a multi-dimensional and somewhat flawed individual. Her strengths come coupled with self-doubt, and her anguish is paired with resilience. By delving into Jackie’s psychology post- assassination, Larraín creates a vivid and complicated portrait.
However, he couldn’t do it without Portman’s masterful performance. Once you get past her speech affectations in the first few minutes, the actress disappears into the role and covers a range of difficult emotions. One of the most admirable aspects of Portman’s work is that she isn’t trying to simply show Jackie as “strong” or “vulnerable” but trying to meld the two within the same instances. In her conversations with the reporter, she can be candid and cagey; she can be defensive, yet subdued. A-list actresses who portray famous historical figures are usually a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, but in the case of Portman, she definitely deserves the recognition.
Where Jackie falters is in trying to find an ending. It knows it wants to say something about the illusion of “Camelot”, and Jackie Kennedy’s role in constructing that vision, but it can’t quite find the right way to articulate it. As a result, the movie feels like it has five endings in succession, and none of them give the movie the proper grace note. It doesn’t irreparably harm the film, but it does make its depiction of Jackie feel slightly more haphazard.
Jackie won’t necessarily cause you to reevaluate Jackie herself as much as it calls into question her legacy and how we choose to evaluate public figures in general. Larraín doesn’t see a hero or a victim in Jackie Kennedy but a person, and with the aid of Portman’s astonishing performance, we feel like we come to some truths about her even if those truths aren’t the pretty picture of Camelot.