The genre of biography pictures has many differing sub-genres and styles. A film reviewed last week, The Founder, lies somewhere within the “based on a true story” genre, where the ‘story’ told spans several years. Films like this include The Blind Side, Precious or The Social Network, which tell stories lasting many years. Another sub-genre within this genre is the ‘based on a true event’ genre, which chronicles the key moments within a single event. These kinds of films are dedicated much more to informing the audience of a certain event, especially an event that requires explanation, or perhaps, was never properly exposed in the first place. Patriot’s Day and Captain Philips are two other films within this genre that concentrated on one specific event, the former, the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, and the latter, a pirate raid of a boat. Similar to this, Jackie is a film that intensely focuses on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the chaotic week that followed.
The film’s plot is presented through a candid and blunt interview between Jaqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman – Star Wars Prequels, Black Swan and Brothers) and a journalist for LIFE magazine, Theodore H. White (Billy Grudup –Watchmen as well as Spotlight), at her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts where she lived after her own self-exile from Washington. The narrative jumps from this interview on the 29th of November 1963 to the day of the assassination on the 22nd of November, and to the days in between these two dates. The presentation of these events is brilliant. Scenes utilise very few establishing shots of building exteriors or grand, vast vistas and instead, often begin in a random location within the action. This editing technique creates a disorientating sense of tension that adds a dramatic, fugue-like confusion for the viewer. Visually, this style of presentation keeps the audience in a constant state of perplexity, which reflects the mindset of the characters in the film who seem to constantly be bewildered and baffled by the week of chaos.
The use of long, drawn out, extreme close-ups in these scenes also effectively emphasises this sense of disorder. Chronologically, this makes for a very confusing series of events. Even though the film’s events take place within the week, keeping track of the different locations and story moments is incredibly difficult. Scenes jump from the interview in Massachusetts, to scenes in the White House, back to the interview and to another location altogether. Admiration for the filmmakers must be credited for not constantly bombarding the audience with a timecard and a location card in the bottom left of the screen with every new scene, but the lack of chronological handholding does get disorientating.
The question on everyone’s mind, and I’m sure, the Academy’s mind is, “is Natalie Portman’s performance Oscar worthy?” and that question requires much consideration. The film’s trailer screamed ‘Oscar bait’ with its dramatic music and carefully selected visuals, but the film, although slightly melodramatic, isn’t, presumably, purposely so for the sake of raking in awards. Portman’s performance isn’t perfectly executed. Her impression of Jackie’s accent and mannerisms is fantastic, but her whispered, muttered ‘soft sobs’ is slightly irking. Portman’s performance is definitely heightened in segments where her character becomes frustrated, or even scenes where Jackie is completely and utterly distraught with sadness. Jackie is portrayed as a diligent and persistent woman in power who is also entirely destroyed by the loss of her true love. Although her husband’s death does completely shatter Jackie’s life, and she even contemplates suicide daily, Jackie earns compassion and empathy through Portman’s performance. Portman is best at playing melodramatic and emotional characters, but the portrayal of Jackie required more grace in playing a mourning, grieving and emotionally drained newly widowed First Lady which Portman sadly didn’t bring to the performance.
Jackie did a magnificent job at representing a Washington in peril in 1963. Portrayals of other figures from the time such as Robert “Bobby” Kennedy by Peter Sarsgaard (Villain from Green Lantern and The Magnificent Seven), a supernaturally authentic John “Jack” F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson – A Danish actor whose filmography is sadly, mostly Danish films) and the newly sworn in President, Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch, a familiar face, Mac McDonald from The Founder) were incredibly accurate. A surprise performance from John Hurt (Olivander from Harry Potter as well as Alien) as a priest was glorious and Greta Gerwig (No Strings Attached) as Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s loyal friend reflected how the audience should empathise with Jackie’s unthinkable experience. Real footage from the Kennedy’s Air Force One arrival, JFK’s funeral, and its procession were charmingly spliced into scenes to smartly avoid having to gather large crowds of extras and reminding the audience of the filmmaker’s perfect and precise representations of these events. One particular shot ingeniously inserts panoramic, archival footage of a crowd into the reflection of a car window, which is absolutely stunning to see. Another cute inclusion into the film, is a meticulous recreation of the 1962 CBS TV special, that had Jackie Kennedy take a camera crew on a tour around the White House after her infamous intentions of refurbishing its historic interior. These delightful mixtures of antiquated footage, and the professional film footage created a much more historical level to the film.
As previously mentioned, the week that followed Kennedy’s assassination is presented as a mess of grief and despair for everyone that arguably escalated events that lead to the beginnings of the Vietnam War and propelled the US into the Space Race. In relation to these incidents, the film concludes on an important but a ham-fistedly religious message about the human spirit, which is what Jackie is all about. Jackie highlights an imperative part of life that is loss, desperation and anguish. Spending life figuring out why things happen is never going to get you anywhere because the answer will always be things happen just because they happen. By looking at the film from this angle, Jackie brilliantly portrays how important perseverance and determination is in the face of whatever life throws at you. As the saying goes, ‘Behind every great man, is a great woman,’ and Jackie no doubt proves this through the inspiring ability of the first lady’s character to overcome adversity when the entire world was watching.