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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: Jackie (2016)

* * * *

Director: Pablo Larrain
Starring: Natalie Portman

History isn't what happened, it's how what happened is remembered. That's why a phrase like "history is written by the victors" exists, because the legacy of an event is not a passive thing that simply occurs naturally, but something that is actively created and shaped for a specific purpose. Of course there are multiple versions of the legacy of John F. Kennedy, including the legacy of conspiracy created by his assassination, and the legacy of ambition tied to tragedy that hangs over the Kennedy family in popular imagination, but Jackie is specifically about the romantic legacy of Camelot, that enduring image of the Kennedy administration as being bathed in a golden, glamorous glow, as fragile and fleeting as it was beautiful. Jackie is about the creation of that idea, first given voice in an interview of Jackie Kennedy for Life magazine, and it's a raw, brutally intimate portrait of personal grief played out on a national stage. It's also a great movie that centers on what may prove to be the defining performance of Natalie Portman's career.

Jackie is technically a biographical drama, but it eschews the linear framework that so many biopics build themselves on. It's fragmentary, jumping back and forth in time, anchored in part by an interview that Jackie (Portman) gives to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life magazine in December 1963. Most of the story takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination as Jackie juggles her own grief with the necessity of securing her husband's legacy, ensuring that despite the brevity of his time in office he will not be resigned to the obscure realms of history, that he will loom as a giant in the American imagination rather than one of those half-remembered Presidents who only come up in trivia contests. When she asks people whether they know the names James Garfield, William McKinley, and Abraham Lincoln, all men who served as President and were assassinated in office, Lincoln is the only one who sparks any kind of recognition and determined that her husband will be remembered, Jackie decides to model his funeral after that of Lincoln, which creates some drama as she comes up against security concerns and the desires of the incoming Johnson administration to take center stage and try to bring some stability back to a nation rocked by the assassination of the President, followed by the assassination of the assassin.

While Jackie worries about her husband being forgotten - which, in hindsight, is unwarranted because the very fact that his assassination occurred at a point in time when such a thing could be captured on video assures that it will always be one of the defining moments of the 20th century - brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) worries that he'll be remembered, but that that remembrance will be shallow and centered on his looks and charisma, while Johnson will get to reap the benefits of finishing the things that Kennedy started and then get all the credit for them. In certain respects, what Jackie is doing is exactly what Bobby fears, emphasizing the creation of a certain image rather than focusing on the deeds, but what he doesn't appreciate is that images can be powerful and lasting and what he doesn't realize (and she, perhaps, doesn't consciously realize it either) is that she isn't just curating a legacy for JKF, but a legacy for herself as well.

Any question that this film is as much about Jackie's legacy as that of the President is put to rest in the film's final moments, which I won't spoil, but the film, directed by Pablo Larrain from a screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, presents this as its thesis all along. It's there in the very circumstances of the discussions between Jackie and White, who is allowed to interview her but made to understand that he's not in control of the interview and that she'll be allowed to review the piece and excise anything she finds to be in conflict with the image she wants to project before it goes to print, creating an almost playful back and forth between them in which she speaks frankly only to then tell him that of course he won't be allowed to print what she just said, or reminds him that she doesn't smoke as she's sitting there smoking a cigarette. It's also present in the way the film keeps returning to her efforts at refurnishing the White House and the televised tour she granted in 1962 to show off those efforts, which at a glance might appear to be superficial concerns but actually demonstrate a desire on her part to make the White House not just the seat of American political power, but a seat of cultural power as well (a point emphasized in scenes of a special concert being performed in the White House). That was her part of the Kennedy legacy, the creation of this sophisticated image during JFK's presidency, the stage management of his grand funeral right down to the smallest detail, and that interview with Life in which she evoked the image of Camelot, and it's as essential to the idea of "the Kennedys" as anything else.

Despite tackling a moment in history which looms large in the popular imagination, Larrain takes an intimate approach to the story, unfolding much of it in tight shots that remove any distance from the characters on screen and the viewers, bringing the camera right up to Jackie's face as she struggles to wipe the blood off in the wake of the assassination, or as she prepares to lead the funeral procession from behind a black veil. Larrain wants there to be an immediacy, an inescapable quality to the emotions of the moment, achieving it in a way that feels engrossing rather than exploitative because what he wants is for the viewer to identify with and be on side with Jackie as she fights to ensure that she isn't pushed out of the plans for her husband's funeral and is able to do things in the way that she feels is necessary for the survival of his memory.

Jackie is a film that's striking in many ways, from the production and costume design, to the cinematography which not only creates this intimate portrait feel but also manages to blend so seamlessly with historical footage that there are certain shots where you're not entirely certain whether you're watching old footage or new, to the score by Mica Levi which has already garnered a great deal of attention from the groups giving out awards. In the end though, it all comes down to Portman. When I was in high school, I had a history teach who, whenever he would discuss anything to do with the events of the Kennedy administration, would end up going on a slight detour into talking about Jackie Kennedy. It would always start the same way, with him mocking that soft, breathy voice, usually in the context of giving that White House tour, but it would always end with him expressing admiration for her fortitude in the aftermath of the assassination and crediting her with holding a country together at a time when it was incredibly vulnerable. That's the image of the woman that comes through in Portman's performance, a tiny wisp of a woman masking a formidable force. To play someone so well-known, who has already been played by so many other actors, is a challenge, but Portman more than rises to it and delivers something that is absolutely mesmerizing and commanding.

"'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.' There'll be great presidents again... but there will never be another Camelot." And there wouldn't have been one in the first place without Jackie.

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