Jackie (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
25Apr/170

Jackie (2016)

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Jackie Kennedy - cultural icon, trendsetter, Emmy Award winner, and wife to John F. Kennedy - must now secure her family's legacy in the wake of JFK's assassination. Pablo Larraín directs Jackie, from a script written by Noah Oppenheim, and stars Natalie Portman.

Pablo Larraín, director of Jackie and a man whose career was previously unknown to me, has a visual motif centered around near-static shots of Jackie Kennedy.  We see the first of these barely ten minutes in.  Jackie is in the dead-center of the frame as she listens to a private concert in the White House.  The camera rolls steadily forward, keeping her face in the center, as we peer closer to Jackie and her blank expression compared to those around her.

A less kind reading of this moment would peg Natalie Portman's performance as doing nothing, and Larraín's camera responding in kind.  The more accurate description of Portman's potentially career-best work is one of horror.  Throughout Jackie, we watch as the cameras stalk her moves and aides constantly remind her to smile, the men regard her as a prop to be moved around for affect, and Jackie stares into the void of a mirror that allows her only a slight glimpse of herself.  The Jackie she can't see in the mirror is one torn apart by all these forces and is losing what grip she has on her identity.

Jackie Kennedy's cultural capital circles the drain in her obsessive quest to secure a legacy-defining funeral for JFK.

Jackie is far removed from the traditional biopic formula and embraces the pressure Jackie faced under the public eye so thoroughly it underlines the absolute terror of her life.  Larraín mines this terror by paying attention to the aftereffects of the sometimes monstrous Kennedy family appetite.  Those moments of Portman doing "nothing" are Jackie trying desperately to figure out what the hungry public and her distant family want from her.  She is afforded only two escapes, which give Larraín a moment to step back from the surgical cold of the camera's gaze, and those come from a brother-in-law whose own motives remain murky and an aide whose job it is to make Jackie presentable.

This isn't a hospitable environment, and the judgment of Larraín's camera evoked a cinematic comparison I wasn't expecting.  Jackie is framed in much the same way Clarice Starling was in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs - a woman alone in a man's world begging for respect.  All the men in her life stare at her coldly and speak in a terse manner suggesting they'd rather be doing anything but catering to the Jackie-shaped obstacle in their path.  Nothing codifies this gaze like the annoyed work of Billy Crudup, based on historical journalists, but in Jackie is an unnamed stand-in for all of journalism with each contemptuous gaze he shoots at Jackie.

One of the great sins during the 2016 Presidential election was the media's attempt to normalize the virulent bigotry of Donald Trump and his supporters.  Jackie's crusade to get her husband a funeral fit for a king is, on the surface, a fitting example of the privileged few hoisting their legacies above the muck.  This isn't wrong, but Jackie is also doing this to avoid normalizing the violence that claimed JFK's life.  If she can't get the respect she wants then by hell she'll play the manipulation game she's been forced to play her whole life to mark the tragedy for what it is.

Mica Levi's score toys with Jackie's nauseating realization that the world is going to move on without easing her pain.  The score seems gentle at first, playing as a low-key pop arrangement, before vomiting a blend of comfort and despair.  Levi's score serves to accomplish what Portman's performance can't.  This, again, isn't a knock on Portman's performance, as she has been so affixed to the public eye as a spectacle of domestic perfection that the chaos raging underneath her image can't be let loose.  It's a testament to both Levi and Portman's trust in Larraín that the off-kilter music would mix so horrifyingly with Portman's repression.

Billy Crudup's performance as an unnamed journalist would be humorous in his annoyance if not for the cold distance he puts between himself and Portman.

Jackie also shines a light on one of the largely unexamined elements of JFK's Presidency.  JFK was almost a disaster as a President and as a man was so greedy for sex he would have fit right in the works of Marquis de Sade.  Larraín avoids the glamour of JFK, but also the lascivious appeal of JFK's seedy side.  JFK plays like an off-screen villain whose tastes keep Jackie in the prison of marriage while the public forces her to be the domestic queen.  Noah Oppenheim's screenplay follows suit with rare moments of catharsis coming in the form of lines like, "Maybe he'll be remembered for how he handled the crisis, or maybe he'll be remembered for creating a crisis he was then forced to solve."

Larraín's direction chucks sentimentality in an incinerator and asks about who would weep over the ashes.  He presents Jackie's plight so directly that we get a clear picture of the cultural weight that kept her imprisoned and why she would still sob over her husband's death.  Jackie is not "likeable", but in Portman's hands she is far from pathetic, and the little vengeance she secures for her husband's is a triumph in its own way.  But she was far from done with being judged in public.  So we leave Jackie as she came, with a woman in the dead-center of the frame, weighing her options on how to present herself to stifle her growing terror.

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Jackie (2016)

Directed by Pablo Larraín.
Screenplay written by Noah Oppenheim.
Starring Natalie Portman.

Posted by Andrew

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