Whilst sitting down to watch Jackie it’s hard not to question whether the world really needs another film about the Kennedy assassination. Considering that the only period of history that has received more extensive theatrical coverage than America circa 1963-73 is the Second World War, it’s easy to cynically pre-judge the film as yet another raking over of Baby Boomer arcana as yet more self-congratulatory hagiography. However in the hands of Director Pablo Larrain, Jackie manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of contemporary Hollywood biography filmmaking. Rather than attempting to lazily summarise the life of Kennedy first lady Jackie Onassis (Natalie Portman) the film revolves kaleidoscopically around one shattering incident (no prizes for guessing what) and its immediate aftermath, veiling Camelot’s horrific climax through the extremely subjective eyes of Jackie herself.
There is a slight problem of cognitive dissonance in that Portman looks just different enough from Onassis that there is feeling of the uncanny valley, compounded by Portman’s notably arch performance. However as the film unspools it becomes clear that her potentially alienating performance is actually powerfully representative of Onassis’s disconnection and alienation following the assassination of her husband (it’s more than worthy of its Oscar nod). The film’s first hour is a blisteringly disorienting whirl following the passage of events minutes after the gunshot as a crystalline series of vignettes: Jackie cradling JFK’s haemorrhaging head, trying to keep it intact, as the motorcade races down the highway to safety; Jackie, adamant about remaining in her drenched clothing, watching as Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) is sworn in on Air Force One, just two hours after the shooting; Jackie, still plainly in shock, breaking the news to her children. Larraín provides no reliable sense of passing time, letting the sleepless hours bleed into sleepless days. Mirroring Onassis’s own life pre and post assassination, the cameras press uncomfortably close to Portman’s sleepless face, whilst Mica Levi’s cacophonous score relentlessly snarls and sooths. This score is Jackie’s secret weapon, full of lonely horns and paranoid strings it’s about as far from Hollywood schmaltz as it gets and key in helping Jackie to stand on its own as a great movie instead of just more Oscar bait.
This being said Jackie doesn’t completely sidestep its genre’s sentimental traditions. The horror of the early scenes eventually bleeds into agonizing over funeral plans along with rather familiar references to the King Arthur stories (the Broadway hit “Camelot” is played twice, which feels a tad lazy considering the aforementioned quality of the There Will Be Blood-tinged original soundtrack and perhaps one too many speeches about legacy, as Jackie works out her fears and anxieties in conversation with a priest (John Hurt, exceptional), an anguished Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), and a loyal confidante (Greta Gerwig). But if the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (weirdly primarily known as the screenwriter of Young Adult tosh like The Maze Runner and Allegiant) can get a little on the nose (as opposed to straight through the forehead), it also takes the Kennedys’ existential crisis in the wake of JFK’s murder seriously; like anyone else, they just wanted to know that they mattered, that they made some mark on the world. As a result much of the film is as much about media control as anything else, with the devastated Jackie attempting to plot a way to enshrine her husband’s legacy whilst hiding her own deep pain. As a result we get an unusual view of the cold politicking behind the rise of the JFK legend that society is still ensnared in today (personally I’d take RFK any day of the week) along with an insight into the broken woman under the surface, it’s that second insight that makes Jackie soar.