I can imagine making a film based on real-life events surrounding an actual historical figure, especially one as iconic as former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to be a delicate process. Biopics are often scrutinised down to the most minute details and torn to shreds for the slightest deviation from the known facts.
Essentially, it’s a balancing act between fact and artistic interpretation, which is why I find Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s clever approach in Jackie a game changer. While most biographical films are dictated by an urgency to tell the story the way it actually happened, Jackie eschews the conventions of this genre for a more subjective treatment of one of history’s most publicised tragedies.
The film re-imagines the 1963 assassination of US president John F. Kennedy through the eyes of his widow, the equally venerated Jackie Kennedy. It begins with the former first lady, superbly played by Natalie Portman, meeting with an unnamed LIFE magazine journalist (Billy Crudup) for an interview mere days after JFK’s demise.
What follows is a non-linear, intimate account of his murder, the emotional and administrative chaos Jackie struggles with while planning his funeral, and his opulent yet inspiring state funeral. By now, all of this would’ve been chronicled – pardon the pun – to death and instead of repeating countless other conventional films on JFK, Jackie examines these events through the musings and memories of a grieving woman who is also determined to protect her husband’s legacy.
During the interview, Jackie candidly shares her opinions but then takes over the reporter’s notes to vet and amend the story so that it properly reflects “what she means” and not what she says. This impulse to craft narratives and control public perception echoes in everything that she does. There’s the pageantry of JFK’s grand state funeral (which she insisted on) and the repetitive, yet poignant, statement that her husband’s favourite song is from a popular and not very sophisticated movie musical, Camelot.
“I believe the characters we read on the page become more real than the men who stand beside us,” she muses at one point. This drives home the point that the film is not just a fascinating character study. It’s also a biting commentary on how legacy, and to a larger extent history, is not built solely on facts but involves a heavy dose of myth-making as well.
And what better way to emphasize this theme than a biopic that looks almost mythical with its ethereal beauty of a lead, dreamlike visuals and intimate close-ups that evoke earlier works by Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick.
The only issue I can detect here is the constant and sometimes abrupt cuts between what is taking place in Jackie’s present timeline and her memories from various parts of her life with and without JFK. Some viewers may find that such an approach disjoints the flow and this could make it difficult to immerse oneself in the story.
But I believe that Larraín’s decisions here better serve the story. The seemingly random (but obviously calculated) jumps between past and present mimics the nature of memory, how it suddenly grips us and drags us from one episode to another and even fixates on past traumas.
A film so rich in thematic and psycho-emotional layers is lucky to have the mesmerising Portman to realise them on screen. This is arguably her most nuanced and affecting performance since Black Swan (2010) and worthy of all the Awards Season nominations she has garnered so far, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Portman’s Jackie is multi-faceted: sometimes strong, sometimes brittle, innocent yet shrewd, powerful and marginalised at the same time.
She is also able to capture Jackie’s famous charisma and elegance, and even emulate her signature mid-Atlantic accent, which was common among the upper crust of American society at the time. But I think what won me over is a little part in the middle of the film where Jackie solemnly reflects: “I lost track somewhere… what was real and what was performance.”
Jackie is an alluring yet meaningful work of art and definitely deserves its place amongst the year’s best films that are being honoured during the awards season.
Jackie is out in cinemas now. Will you be catching it over the weekend?