In a moment when some are ready to release a cathartic cheer when 2016 bows out and the clock strikes midnight, as far as his contributions behind the camera are concerned, director Pablo Larraín has had quite the year. Neruda, one of his two films released this year, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has become the best-reviewed film of his career thus far. Then in September, his biopic Jackie made its premiere in Venice, and since its release in the United States has gained a lot of buzz in no small part due to an Oscar-worthy performance from Natalie Portman.
So far, Neruda is merely Chile’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film, but at this point, Jackie is almost a sure lock for numerous Oscar nominations. Biographical dramas are familiar territory for the Academy, however, so how is Larraín’s film special, and what kind of impact does it have?
Right away, we first notice Mica Levi’s original score. The unsettling strings that sharply descend and briefly rise pulsate and repeat themselves throughout the opening shots. Anyone previously familiar with her work might know of similar atmospherics in the music she composed for Under the Skin, but it still sounds a far cry from the experimental pop she puts out on her studio albums. The somber quality of her compositions here – and the first piece, in particular – reflects the sudden nature of JFK’s assassination, and thus the swift end of Jackie’s title as First Lady. In fact, considering much of the score arises when Portman is within the frame, it’s often difficult not see it as psychological.
And then there’s the cinematography which, courtesy of Stéphane Fontaine, bears the resemblance of archival footage much the way Edward Lachman’s work for Carol had the feel of a photograph – appropriate considering the film’s use of it, including the Zapruder film. Like Levi’s score, there is a beautiful melancholy to what Fontaine depicts, especially during such scenes like the decision of a burial plot and the funeral procession. Additionally, Fontaine’s frame always seems to find Portman’s Jackie in or near the center. Though the picture quality suggests historical distance, Fontaine’s eye remains intimate, and Jackie’s staging accentuates that point while conveying power even during moments of vulnerability.
There’s hardly a shot present that doesn’t feature Portman, and fortunately she delivers a performance commanding and multi-faceted enough to justify that focus. She was confidently at home playing arguably the most recognizable First Lady in this country’s history – outside of the modern era – and that sort of magnitude was met by ownership and a transcendence of all that Jackie was considered in the public eye during the early ‘60s. No other performer comes close to matching the amount of screen time she gets, but co-stars Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup and Greta Gerwig all make the most of what they have.
And of course, we’d be remiss without mentioning Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay. With a runtime of roughly 95 minutes, Oppenheim’s script is pretty damn lean for a biopic. And yet, we cover just about all that needs to be seen of Jackie from those four days in between JFK’s assassination and his funeral, including her Life interview with Theodore White (Crudup) – the steady direction and mid-tempo pacing from Larraín helps, too.
Additionally, one of the most gleaming positives taken from the narrative is Oppenheim’s refusal to overly exploit the assassination scene. In the beginning, all we see from that fateful day is Jackie and John being greeted at the airport, and then their car speeding down the interstate moments after the final bullet was shot. The most unsettling part of this sequence is an extreme close-up of Jackie as she sobs and wipes away the blood on her face.
Not only was this more than enough considering, once again, the Zapruder footage, but also because any other time spent on that shocking moment would have, at least momentarily, distracted from the point of highlighting Jackie’s mourning and resilience, and it was important for Larraín and Co. to establish and maintain that intent so early in the film. So when the actual assassination is inevitably shown near the end of the third act, it’s short, anything but sweet – quite graphic, in fact – and overall, ironically abides by the Sam Peckinpah philosophy of treating death in film as it should be treated: sudden, violent and absolutely ugly.
There’s one final thing to note about Jackie, and though it may seem obvious and some may believe it bears mentioning, it should be brought up because it rests so heavily in the undercurrent. To anyone with a brain, and as progressive as it eventually became compared to previous eras of human history, the 1960s was still a time when women were portrayed in a certain fashion and needed to prove themselves to their male counterparts to earn even a modicum of respect. Hell, if you paid attention at all to some of the rhetoric tossed about in this past presidential election, you’d know that’s unfortunately still the case.
Jacqueline Kennedy was no stranger to this perception, and if Portman’s portrayal of her is any indication, the simultaneous frustration and intelligence she emits is a testament to her gracefulness in the face of adversity. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Sarsgaard’s Robert Kennedy mentions the family having to overcome the negative sentiment of the supposedly ‘beautiful people’ coming into power in politics and turning the White House into Camelot. While that may have been true for Robert and certainly so for John, there’s no doubt Jackie felt its effects even more than either of them or anyone else.
It’ll face some stiff competition come the announcement of the Oscar nominees next month, but the beautifully told, shot, composed and performed Jackie is more than worthy of its place in the conversation. If it’s still on your must-watch list, be sure to cross it off and take in one of the few positives from this god-forsaken year.