American presidents have long been the subject of biopics, from Richard Nixon to Abraham Lincoln and even George W. Bush. But the First Lady has never been deemed worthy of a biographical film, at least until director Pablo Larraín decided to tell the tale of Jackie Kennedy. After Jackie, even with Michelle Obama as a potential subject, I'm not sure when anyone will try again.
The life of John F. Kennedy is well-trodden territory cinematically, including JFK and Thirteen Days, but a Jackie-centric movie offers another perspective of the man and his accomplishments. Setting it immediately after the assassination, as Larraín does, also strips us (and his characters) of any hindsight. We get a first-hand glimpse at the immediate aftermath of the 35th President of the United States, shared by the wife who loved him—and wanted to protect him—the most.
Jackie deviates from standard biopics in a few ways. First off, it's about a woman. This isn't unheard of, but most of the more-heralded biopics of the last few decades—Ray, Capote, The Aviator, Walk the Line, The Theory of Everything—revolved around men. Given how trite and template-driven some of those turned out to be, a little diversity is a very welcome thing.
Secondly, it tries to pop the bubble of fame as opposed to inflating it. Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim present a Jackie Kennedy that is a self-admitted media creation, though she'd never let a member of said media print that. While a loving mother and supportive wife in her own right, she innately understands that creating an impenetrable legacy for the public to consume is key to ensuring the Kennedy legacy lives on.
This makes Jackie's story an provocative one, at least on paper: is the Camelot myth we've all come to associate with the Kennedy family based in any sort of reality? Or is it just a brilliant creation of Jackie's nimble mind, as she struggles to cope with her husband's death and the clear knowledge that he wasn't always as faithful and committed as she was?
This brings us to Natalie Portman, the engine that powers Jackie from "stylish and intriguing biopic" to "beloved awards contender." Larraín and Oppenheim load her up with a ton to process: grief-stricken, potentially unstable, insanely protective, devilishly aware, betrothed to the idea that her family rises above all else. Yet Portman bounces from emotion to emotion, not as a tumbling pinball but as a savvy tactician who is rediscovering her strengths in a time of need.
Even as Portman stumbles through the White House, drinks and pills in hand, Camelot's soundtrack blaring on the record player, there's a fire in her eyes that tells us she's taking in everything. Though Jackie veers close to collapse, Portman's portrayal ultimately reveals a woman who is reverting to a life-lengthening strategy, for better or worse. Jackie Kennedy may have been a bit uncertain and confined to her role as wife and mother, but she understood the power she did have very clearly. Few actresses are able to fit all that into a performance, but Portman does it and then some.
Unfortunately, that's about all we get substance-wise. One of the final shots is a very real and visceral look at JFK's head literally being blown off, which is quite a sight for any movie, and John Carroll Lynch's Lyndon B. Johnson holds its own against the newly definitive Bryan Cranston version that graced stage and screen. But Peter Sarsgaard is mumbly and forgettable as Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig is largely wasted as Jackie's assistant, and the great John Hurt is cursed with the most stereotypical scenes as a priest/sounding board.
In the end, Jackie ends up being more fascinating than good. Larraín uses dazzling visuals and a haunting score from Under the Skin composer Mica Levi to portray the eerie, dream-like netherworld everyone must've fallen into after Kennedy's assassination. But in the end, there's not much to say. It's interesting to see the veil pulled back a little, but even a slim 99 minutes proves too long for the First Lady's cinematic dissection.