The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was one of the most shocking, most keenly felt tragedies of the twentieth century. Countless pieces of great art have sought to grapple with the shooting, from Oliver Stone’s paranoia-drenched JFK to Don DeLillo’s Libra. Mad Men set a typically memorable, artful episode around the incident. Just about every emotional, political and symbolic interpretation has been picked apart and re-assembled. It is all the more impressive, then, that Pablo Larraín’s Jackie feels so thrillingly fresh.
Much of the credit has to go to Natalie Portman, in what many are calling a career-best performance as ‘America’s First Widow’. Indeed, the actress manages to sustain a staggering level of intensity, offering both a pretty spot-on impersonation of a well-known public figure and an upsetting embodiment of post traumatic stress. Jackie doesn’t have too much by way of a storyline – most of the explicit narrative concerns some difficult decision-making over the funeral arrangements – but instead chooses to interrogate its subject through almost dismembered emotion. Harrowing vignettes of Jackie Kennedy’s reaction to the shooting are framed by that most familiar of devices: the retrospective, explanatory press interview. But this is no cop-out; the interviewer is an unwanted presence, and the conversation swings between frankness and hostilities. The reporter (played well by Billy Crudup) is trying to make some tidier sense of the event that shook the nation, but is confronted by a grief too complex and personal to distil into tabloid journalism.
“both her [Portman] character and the film as a whole are very starkly one-note, but what a haunting, immaculately-sustained note it is”
There is a certain timeliness to Larraín’s film. Released in the UK on the day of Donald Trump’s inauspicious inauguration, the film overtly tackles issues of legacy and of national transition. Whilst Jackie looks on in shock as Lyndon Johnson assumes her dead husband’s position, she is watching too the abrupt end to his potential. As she laments the great changes that President Kennedy would now never be able to bring about, the spectres of Johnson, Vietnam, and even the subsequent Nixon administration, loom large. Fortunately, the director is too savvy to stress the relevance of such emotions. The end of the Obama era is drastically different to the violent end of the Kennedy era. Nor would Larraín have known the election results when making the film. But the relevance, and parallels, remain there nonetheless. Political upheaval, represented as PTSD.
It is also worth mentioning the (now Oscar-nominated) score by Under the Skin composer Mica Levi, a perfect mix of presidential grandeur and teetering dread. Jackie is a well-made, ambitious movie through and through, an art film masquerading as Awards-baiting biopic. Great turns from John Hurt and Peter Sarsgaard are inevitably overshadowed by a force-of-nature performance by Natalie Portman. Sideswiped by tragedy, both her character and the film as a whole are very starkly one-note, but what a haunting, immaculately-sustained note it is.
Image: Fox Searchlight