Not Jackie Chan. Not Jackie Brown.
Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy. That's who.
"Jackie" follows JFK's famed spouse (Natalie Portman) in the days following the president's assassination, recounting the events with "the journalist" (Billy Crudup). In an time thick with paint-by-numbers biography films, "Jackie" manages to avoid the typical tropes of those films, as director Pablo Larrain turns the story of Jacqueline's life into an existential exploration of grief and a deep examination of one of America's most beloved families.
The movie doesn't belabor its audience with trite tales of humble upbringings (hers were not exactly humble anyway) somehow foreshadowing platitudes she would pick up later in life, which would strangely echo what she learned during those formative humble upbringings, after some major life turmoil and strife. Larrain knows that he wants to focus on a single point in time, specifically a span of a few days, where Ms. Kennedy has time to reflect on the legacy of her and her recently deceased husband's relatively short time in the Oval Office.
At first, Portman's recreation of Jacqueline's unique accent is itself quite jarring, and it feels like she's overdoing it, even focusing on it too much. But once the film picks up a little momentum, namely directly after the horrific scene of Jackie's husband being shot and killed in front of her, it seems like she has grown into the role, and it turns into an impressive, veteran performance from the actress.
Many films attempt to convey the feeling of memories being distorted or unclear. "Jackie" jumps back and forth between different points in time (over a very short span of time, at that), and it creates a disorienting effect that puts to shame similar methods for attempting to create that effect in other movies. That, coupled with a horror movie-style soundtrack (psychological horror, not jump scares), makes for an excellent atmospheric experience that puts the audience directly into the first lady's head, as she tries to get through those dark, difficult days.
The movie puts into perspective the oddness of the US' brand of celebrity politics, especially as it concerns people around politicians who become newly famous when they win the office, especially the office of the president, and how abruptly that fame can come to an end. As Ms. Kennedy puts it, "a First Lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. It's inevitable." In her case, the "end" came a bit more unexpectedly than it does for most first ladies. It was overwhelming enough that she had to deal with not only her husband dying in front of her. But immediately after the event, she has to return to the White House, which looms around her like a monster. The presidential residence is steeped in memories of Jack. Jackie knows that all of this is over for her, and that she'll shortly need to move out of Washington and move on to "normal" civilian life. That's a hell of a lot.
It is strange that in the US, someone is quickly thrust into a position of fame and responsibility, and then at the end, is just as quickly thrust back into a position of an odd sort of retirement that almost no one else will see or understand. It is something that comes with the territory, as government transparency is important, since governance affects everyone, but the fame adds a lot of extra pressure to an already incredibly stressful role.
Portman is especially impressive early in the film, as she is riding on Air Force One returning her husband's body to Washington from Dallas, and she's already starting to talk about funeral arrangements, calm and collected and with the poise of an officer worker routinely carrying out the assignment she is tasked with, knowing that she's really in shock over the monumental event she's just endured.
The film also features a recreation of Jacqueline Kennedy's one-hour tour of the White House, which was broadcast on TV, which made her into a very public figure. But as she's attempting to bring Washington to the people, she sets up some high expectations for herself and for her husband, that later for her become more of a lament for seeming promise that went unfulfilled. The way the film recounted events that were televised, getting the look of the cameras just right, like with the assassination and the moments leading up to it, makes for a nice effect, as they are shown through the lens of what America would have witnessed as they happened.
Jack Kennedy carried such a stature of respect from the American public, but as he did not live to the end of his term, he did not get to experience the flood of thoughts about what kind of legacy he would leave as a former president. Jackie and the other people around her are left to carry that burden. She is bombarded with comments from several people about her husband not measuring up to fellow presidential assassinee Abraham Lincoln. After all, as popular as Kennedy was, he didn't do anything that came close to approaching the importance of abolishing slavery. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is especially disappointed by the inability of his brother's presidency to accomplish the achievements he set in motion: civil rights and the Vietnam War, both of which Lyndon Baines Johnson would inherit. Of course, Vietnam wound up being a colossal disaster, but LBJ did get to take the credit for the Civil Rights Act, at least from the legislative side.
It's also weird that LBJ (here played by John Carroll Lynch) has been a portrayed in several major films in recent years (he was also featured in "Selma," "All the Way," and the upcoming "LBJ," starring Woody Harrelson as the president). It's also interesting that you can get a sense of how a film is portraying LBJ simply by considering the actor cast in his role. In "Selma," he was portrayed by the imposing Tom Wilkinson, as an antagonist to Martin Luther King. In "All the Way," Bryan Cranston starred as LBJ as the film's main subject, offering a complex, multi-faceted view of a president who took no shit, yet also took shits with the bathroom door open. Lynch, who has done a lot of character acting, shows LBJ to be a sort of an aloof, unprepared individual, whom Jackie catches too eagerly, along with new first lady Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant), perusing new curtain designs for the Oval Office.
Sarsgaard gives Bobby a rather temperamental portrayal who is possessive of his family legacy (especially that of his brother), and thus is rather controlling, and too big for his britches, at one point ordering new President Johnson to sit down. But as a condescending Jack Valenti (Max Casella) seems to be hurrying the Johnson regime into the White House, it seems easy to understand why Bobby might be a bit protective.
JFK is barely seen in the movie, and so anything the audience might glean about the president, they get from Jackie's point of view. As she mentions that she slept alone most of the time, she mentions his fondness for the musical, "Camelot," and a few other gleanings about the president.
Some of the film's most poignant moments come in Jackie's conversations with the Priest (the dearly departed John Hurt), as anytime someone talks to a Priest in a movie, you know it's about to get heavy. What the two actually discuss is well-worn ground, about how a "good God" could allow such evil -- one's significant other getting shot right in front of them and losing several children in their youth being damning examples -- and the answer being simultaneously both lacking and sufficient. It is interesting to see such a lofty figure as a first lady struggling through the same existential questions anyone in her situation would struggle through.
If the movie has a flaw (besides underdone side characters), it's that it drags a bit, even at a lean 100 minutes. It starts to feel a bit repetitive, as it bounces back and forth between days, and there are a few shots trying to convey Jackie's disorientation or numbness or whatever, which maybe last longer than they need to. But then again, perhaps it's intentional to make the viewer feel weary, as the main character would have felt.
In the end, the film serves to humanize the Kennedys and take a more realistic view of a couple that holds a certain mystique American lore. But as it questions JFK's legacy, it also serves to bolster Jackie's. It's hard to see Jacqueline Kennedy as anything besides a sympathetic character. But she is also shown to be strong in the face of tragedy, intelligent, and loyal and protective of her husband. And after the whirlwind of her husband's death died down, she picked up the pieces and moved on with her life. Certainly, the title of the movie evokes Jacqueline Kennedy's life as her identity is in limbo as she moves on from being a Kennedy. It's a reflection of the many hats the first lady would wear throughout her life, not only because she dealt with changes in her life, but also that she literally wore a lot of hats.
"Jackie" should be remembered as a masterful film, with a brave performance from Natalie Portman, for whom this movie ought to stand as a career highlight. People should keep an eye on Pablo Larrain, as he should have a bright future ahead of him with the recognition he deserves. This was certainly among the best films of 2016, and it easily warranted more attention at awards time than it received.
More than simply being a good period drama and far from being another lazy biopic, which a movie like this easily could have wound up as, "Jackie" stands on its own, as a fascinating, painful exploration of a beloved family marked by tragedy. It's a good reminder that even presidents and their families are still ordinary humans, which may or may not be a comforting thought at the end of the day.