If you’ve been waiting all your life for a biopic that dives deep into the life and politics of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, you may need to keep waiting. Jackie, the new film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín starring Natalie Portman as the first lady, has a lot of big ideas on its mind, but it’s a biopic in name only.
We get the impression right from the start that this isn’t a movie that’s going to cohere to any of our previously established ideas of what a biographical drama should be. As the film opens on a black screen, an overture of disjointed orchestral noise sets an unsettling mood before we fade in on Jackie, marching toward us haggardly in what we assume is the aftermath of her husband’s funeral. From there we cut to the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port home, one week later, where a nameless reporter (Billy Crudup) shows up to conduct an interview with the former first lady—or, rather, to write history.
Larraín and his screenwriter, Harvard Crimson alumnus Noah Oppenheim, are very interested in exploring concepts of historical representation, though almost to the point of undermining Portman’s job of portraying a woman in the throes of unthinkable grief (more on that later). Besides the interview gambit, the film is peppered with footage—some of it archival, some of it meticulously recreated—of Jackie’s famous televised tour of the White House.
A more linear, central narrative traces the events of the aftermath of JFK’s death up to his burial. But at all times and from every angle the movie encourages us to think about how Americans, consciously or not, let history and tradition shape our perception of our government and our leaders—both those who align with our politics and those who don’t. Sometimes this is done subtly: the contrast between Jackie’s costumes and those of the women around her in Washington, the antique furniture in every room of the White House, and the iconographic framing of Washington buildings all speak for themselves. But far too often the filmmakers spell out their intentions a touch too clearly. It’s one thing to have Jackie tell Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) the story behind the beautiful, handcrafted bed that Mary Todd Lincoln bought for her husband and their (subsequently eponymous) bedroom; it’s another to draw the scene out longer by having Jackie point to a portrait of her predecessor and ask, “Do you think Lincoln’s widow knew? They’d build a monument to her husband?”
This is one example among many of the film’s laying on the exposition too thick. It’s a shame, because aesthetically speaking, the cinematography and music are already doing a lot of the heavy explanatory lifting. Jackie was shot on Kodak 16mm film and bears all the fuzzy, grainy marks of a former era. Shooting in this format, rather than digitally or in higher definition, suits the story and suffuses it with a gauzy sense of nostalgia while making the film’s many transitions between archival 1960s footage and shot-in-2016 footage totally seamless: mesmerizing to look at, and coyly self-referential to boot. Meanwhile, the score, composed by classically trained British experimental artist Mica Levi, sounds like a literal tornado has cut through an orchestra, leaving the instruments to wearily pick themselves up and try to assemble themselves into something resembling order. Though thematically appropriate for the story and the clear technical standout of the film, the soundtrack is also the feature most likely to prevent viewers from jiving with the film’s rhythms. Whatever high-minded, postmodern storytelling aspirations the filmmakers have in mind for Jackie, this is still a movie that relies on the more relatable theme of grief as its emotional anchor to the audience.
Which leads us to the most important question of all: is Portman any good? Does she make for a believable Jackie? Does it matter if she doesn’t?
In a spirit of generosity to viewer and actress alike, I will leave that to your judgment, with the caveat that one man’s Oscar-worthy performance is another’s unintentional camp masterpiece. Portman is saddled with a difficult enough role to play as it is, and the screenplay doesn’t do her (or the film) any favors by giving this woman in mourning the added responsibility of being consistently, coherently profound at every turn. Not even Homer’s Andromache could synthesize a perfect thematic reflection on The Iliad while grieving over Hector.
Sometimes it’s okay to trust an actor to just tackle difficult emotions head-on, without burdening them with overwrought dialogue and rigorously contrived scenarios. (Exhibit A of the latter: an extended scene, set to Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, where Jackie deliriously fumbles around the executive residence wardrobes and liquor cabinets. And you thought I was kidding about the camp.) Unsurprisingly, the least staged moments of the film are the most unsettling. After a stiff drink in a scene some two-thirds of the way through the film, Jackie catches an accidental glimpse of herself in a mirror. Her hair’s a mess, her face is contorted all out of shape, and she looks absolutely ridiculous. And the thing is: she is ridiculous. Life is frail and fabulous and very often freakish, and it’s only in these moments where the utter strangeness of ourselves disarms us from the narratives—personal, historical—we construct in our heads that we ever tend to realize it.
Tim Markatos is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.