There are certain people who achieve the status of cultural icon.
These people, it's as if they stand still in time. We remember them not as how they actually were, but through the lens of our own life experiences with them.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was such a person, a woman whose mere mention triggers memories of a life once lived in Camelot and a world shattered before the eyes of the world. We remember things about her, though these were not the things that defined her. We remember the name "Jack," that pink dress, the iconic images of a White House life most of us can't even begin to imagine...We remember "that day." We remember that day when our lives changed, but then we remember that her life changed that day, too, and that change was, at least in some ways, put on display for the entire world to see.
We remember Jackie, not as she was but as how we experienced her.
Jackie, the film, shouldn't be mistaken for a straightforward biopic. Chilean director Pablo Larrain has never done one and he certainly doesn't start here. Jackie is a cultural vision of an unforgettable woman and an unforgettable time in American history, a time that these days seems both incredibly far away and not much more than yesterday. Maybe tomorrow. The film is structured around Jackie's almost unfathomable interview with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life Magazine, an interview that took place in Hyannis Port a mere one week after the assassination of her husband Jack. This is not a biopic, but a reflection on that period of time which both changed a nation and, more intimately, the life of a woman we've long known but never really understood.
Working from a script by Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner, The Divergent Series: Allegiant), Larrain has crafted one of the year's most compelling films, a film destined to be both passionately embraced and just as passionately dismissed. The film itself centers around and depends upon the strength of Natalie Portman's extraordinary performance as Jackie, a performance that captures the essence of Jackie without drowning in the vocal caricatures so often seen in portrayals of the former First Lady. The film largely exists around that one week period between JFK's assassination the following week leading up to the Life Magazine interview, though Jackie doesn't feel narrow or incomplete. Instead, Jackie feels precise and exacting without ever losing sight of her status as a cultural icon interpreted different ways by different people.
Somehow, Oppenheim's script gives us details we never fully realized while allowing us to maintain our own identities with her.
Larrain, who is also on the Academy's short list for Foreign Language Film with this year's Neruda, seems destined to be remembered come awards season, though it's hard not to wonder about the film's box-office potential with Larrain's trademark style that blends bold, reflective narrative with intimate and jarringly unsettled imagery. Larrain shot the film in 16mm, an approach that gives the film an intimacy while also reinforcing Larrain's matter-of-fact approach to telling the stories that unfold.
One such story, perhaps, is also the film's emotional grounding force. While those of us who've lived with the JFK assassination within our worldview have long remembered the Zapruder film's capturing of JFK's assassination, Jackie captures those moments like never before in a way that feels both heartwrenching and stunningly direct. Portman is absolutely riveting in these scenes, not because she plays for emotions but precisely because she does not.
Jackie will work best for those not dependent upon traditional structured narratives, Larrain foregoing the usual storytelling in favor of a more spiraling narrative that serves to capture a 360-degree view of Jackie Kennedy's world, both politically and personally, in the days following her husband's assassination. Oppenheim's script never allows us to forget the national relevance of Kennedy's assassination, but neither does it allow us to forget that the tragedy that gripped a nation forever altered the life journey of one woman tasked with carrying on a Camelot that would never be the same.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic