Quick Hit: A powerful score, jarring camerawork, and a terrific performance lead you forward with a movie that is thrilling to watch, even when you know what’s coming.
It’s been a post of two since I disclosed a personal, geeky fact about myself (I could look and find the last review I did so, but that would be rather exhausting). So here’s one for you to munch on today – I went through a rather larger phase in my late teens and early twenties when I became rather obsessed with the Kennedy’s. I’m not sure really what started it – maybe it’s the fact that I have a close relative with a birthday on the 22 NOV, or maybe it’s just the same things that fascinated so many other people about the Kennedy’s: they stick out. This led to a variety of years where I studied the Kennedy family. I’ve read the Warren Commission report, watched a ton of specials and documentaries about them, and I’ve read countless biographies of both Jackie and Jack. So when I heard that Natalie Portman would be playing Miss Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (well, in this Jackie Kennedy at least), I sat tight and listened, hoping it wouldn’t be terrible.
After the movie started generating Oscar buzz, I got more and more excited.
When it received its nominations, Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Best Original Score (Mica Levi), and Best Costume Design (Madeline Fontaine), I essentially had to see it.
And frankly, I wasn’t disappointed.
Jackie is a biopic at its best. Often times, movies fall into the pit that Ali fell into – they try and focus on the entire life of a person. I often think that those celebrities that we fall in love with become that way due to certain events in our lives, most particularly the harsh ones. America was in love with the Kennedy’s in the 60s – with their flaws and their money, their politics and their family. Jackie focuses on a period of less than two years (1962 and 1963), with the majority of the film portraying the events of 22 NOV 1963. The film is framed as an interview with Ms. Kennedy, with frequent cuts to other moments in time, such as her events at the White House and her renovation of the White House.
This is shot by Pablo LarraÍn (director) and Stéphane Fontaine (Cinematographer) in jarring close ups. It frequently presents shots that complement each other – for example, the shot of Jackie putting on makeup, followed thirty minutes later with the shot of her wiping Jack’s blood and brains off her face. The camera never forgets who the movie is about – Jackie is consistently in the center of the frame, and often times her face fills the entire screen. This is beautiful, and I can’t think of another film that does this.
For me, besides Portman, the score also really stands out. Mica Levi (who did Under the Skin as well), provides a classically trained ear to the musical score. Filled with weeping strings that are quickly jarred with a sharp juxtaposition of woodwinds, the score livens the moments within the film that are the most emotional. Often the film will go silent, only for a crescendo to raise up and crash over you in a wave of sound.
Ah, but Portman truly stands out in the film. Often times, biopics become a different type of film for an actor/actress. They spend their time copying, instead of acting. That’s because they can see the tics of a character and apply them. Here, you hear Jackie’s breathless tone and accent, and her hair is perfectly bobbed, the way Ms. Kennedy’s often was. But where Portman really sells it is through her emotional scenes that are often cut so deep you can see the steel within Ms. Kennedy. It’s impossible not to emulate with her, and I am very proud to have watched this movie about a woman that refused to compromise.
The movie is also very consistent with history, often using a grainy Super 16 to film shots. There are moments that play - like Jack Ruby killing Oswald - that are simply footage of what actually happened. This is very in line with who Jackie was. She was committed to history and was a student of it, which gave her some comfort during the death of her children and her husband. The costumes show this as well. Jackie O. was a style icon, much the way our red carpet stars are now. The film shows the variety of different outfits through the movie, and she never ceases to maintain an air or aristocracy.
As far as negatives, I think the film starts to stray a bit from its main points. Though I enjoyed seeing John Hurt on screen one last time before his passing, I didn’t think that the scenes with him added a ton to the movie besides quotations. Along with that, I wasn’t incredibly impressed with the presentation of the rest of the Kennedy’s in general, or of Lyndon as a power hungry man. The Kennedy’s may have been elites, and Lyndon surely didn’t have a problem leaping into office, but to have them be so ruthless is surely not all the truth – though I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there.
Overall, Jackie is a good film that is not going to be for everyone. For some, it will be too discordant and jarring compared to more traditional biopics (Race for example). But Portman's performance of Jackie's aristocracy is amazing. It's Camelot, after all. I’m going to give it a “B+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"