Jackie (2016); A Slow Burn of a Character Study
“I never wanted to be famous, I just became a Kennedy.”
An interesting scene happens in Jackie when the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) ride alone together in the back of a hearse, while Jack Kennedy’s bloodied remains lay covered in the coffin at their feet. Jackie questions the driver’s knowledge of past assassinated presidents as she fears that her husband’s legacy will attain to nothing more than a distant memory. Bobby somberly listens and attempts to quell her anxiety, all the while peaceful and rational; like others in this scene and throughout the film, Bobby doesn’t show any reaction to losing his brother—the President of the United States. This scene is obviously fabricated. Jackie was a private woman who didn’t open the door for others to pry heavily into her extremely public life. Meanwhile, Bobby would go on to live about five more years before his own tragic assassination closed a window on his own story. My point is, this fabricated scene is at the imagination of the film’s writer, Noah Oppenheim. Anything could have been said or done in that hearse based on his whim, but he chose to handle this emotional moment and the ongoing situations in the film in very distant and flat ways.
The real life footage of John F. Kennedy’s death has always left an impact on me. Not the tragic shooting itself but America’s reaction to it. Faces filled with shock. Audiences of people gasped. Tears flowed for the many Americans who felt the personal loss of their chances at civil rights and progress. These strong emotions are not prevalent in Jackie. Everyone instead reacts with furrowed pity for Jackie, bowing their heads when she walks into a room or worrying with complete despair when she rambles on in shock. The ensemble of characters that fill out the film almost seem to judge Jackie behind their scrunched eyebrows yet no one, outside of Jackie, sheds a tear for Kennedy. No one shares Jackie’s pain, they only seem to feel sympathetic slight. They don’t react as if they’ve lost a president, co-worker, or friend; they act as though they’ve lost the house gerbil.
It made me question whether this cold narrative and dismal focus is meant to give all the attention, and thus performative range, to Portman or if subpar direction of actors from Pablo Larraín simply didn’t allow for moments of glory for supporting characters. Saarsgard as Bobby seems nearly un-phased by his brother’s death throughout the entire film and is frankly wasted because of this. He adds nothing to the role nor the narrative except to be a shill that Jackie gets to lay her anger on when she thinks he’s doubting her. While I realize that Jackie and her emotional breakdown are the obvious focus of this film, it feels odd to watch a movie about an American icon and not get a glimpse at how his other loved ones reacted.
This icebox of a focus does, however, lend itself to fantastic work by director of photography Stéphane Fontaine who complements Larraín’s taut, breathy camera work with high contrast images that manage to suck the life out of the frame while still allowing stark, rich colors to stay embolden in every shot. This dual collaboration leaves the images within Jackie rigid and pliable. Mica Levi’s score balances the images while helping move shots forward in a rhythmic progression that effectively keeps up the pace of this near two-hour journey.
These elements play upon each other appropriately but they never fully make the package of the film incredible or stimulating. Jackie has just enough introspective sequences to make it a bearable character study of the nation’s most secretive First Lady, but the film doesn’t possess enough to make it groundbreaking or outstanding unless it’s for cinematic value and Portman’s performance. I found Larríne and Portman’s choice to make Jackie appear wooden and uncomfortable in her position, despite the real Jackie possessing a knowing confidence that managed to make her an icon, a large reason why this film truly suffers. Jackie is a film to see if you’re a history buff who enjoys period dramas, or if you’re a Natalie Portman purist or simply if you’re someone who wants to see some great DP work at play. But if you’re looking for something deeper about Jackie Kennedy’s experience as a First Lady to an assassinated president, you may find yourself better impressed by a documentary.