Jackie isn’t a normal biopic, allowing for a deeper understanding of its subject.
It’s only due to my familiarity with Natalie Portman, having seen so many of her films, contrasted with Jackie Kennedy’s unique accent and vocal delivery, that it took me a few scenes to grow accustomed to Portman’s version of the former first lady’s speaking style and mannerisms. At first the attempt sounds forced and peculiar, but then again (and you should do some quick YouTube research), so did Jackie’s actual voice. Overall, Portman does an excellent job, with her imitation utilized to great effect. There’s also very impressive art direction by White House production set veteran Halina Gebarowicz (House of Cards and Veep), an impactful and memorable film score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin), and sensible editing to keep Jackie to-the-point and flowing. But we’ll get to all of that a bit later. Jackie isn’t your normal biopic. Rather than a sweeping account spanning decades covering her upbringing, political life, the JFK assassination, and her life after, the film focuses solely on the assassination, including the days before and after it. It’s a risky move that completely pays off.
And why is that a risky move? Well, Jackie Kennedy Onassis is a woman arguably most known for being married to President John F. Kennedy (JFK). JFK is arguably most known for his assassination during a motorcade in Dallas in 1963. So in essence, it’s the husband and his assassination that has defined Jackie’s legacy. And yet, you would imagine that to understand the woman, you’d want to see a complete picture of her life, not just that single event which was more about her husband than her. Jackie utilizes the assassination extremely well as a way to explore Jackie’s fears, strengths, emotions, vulnerabilities, and values as she navigates consoling her children and handling the grief. Even with only a select few pre-assassination clips of her time in the White House, and then the events of the week following the killing, we feel like we’ve received a complete character profile of the real life individual. The filmmakers pull this off via a smart script and an editing job that makes a fairly cliché story structure (flashbacks during a “present-day” interview) feel fresh. We sometimes jump through time within flashback scenes, the characters being placed around the room in different positions to demonstrate the passage of time within the confines of their conversation. The camera pulls tight to Portman’s face during emotional exchanges, and pulls back to reveal the clean yet sterile rooms in the White House when she feels trapped. After leaving the Jackie screening, I felt there was no better way to honor her legacy than to depict her in this manner, showing her placement within this historic moment, and focusing on her handling of the world unravelling around her.
Back to the voice. The main noticeable difference between Portman’s vocal act and Jackie’s voice is the pitch, Portman’s being a slightly higher and thus losing a bit of the sultriness of Jackie’s voice. The height difference could’ve been an issue, too, but it’s really not a big deal (Portman is nearly a half foot shorter). I keep talking about Portman’s performance because Jackie is sort of a Natalie Portman showcase, with her proven acting chops in full display, packaged and decorated by a strong but limited supporting cast and, again, really commendable direction from Pablo Larraín and editing by Sebastián Sepúlveda. The powerful score by Mica Levi tiptoes between classical and sixties instrumental, but carries a mesmerizingly string-fueled tone which follows Jackie from room to room, and through each hardship. Technical accolades aside, Jackie comes at a time where we should be constantly reminding ourselves of the strong figures in our nation’s political history. As the first lady struggled to define her late husband’s legacy, she may have very well defined her own. Jackie embraces this idea and helps solidify the subject’s legacy five-plus decades after the fateful moment in history.
Jackie comes out in theaters Friday, 12/9.