The mass-market appeal of biopics isn’t what it used to be but Jackie, is a jarring reminder that in order for a film to move it’s audience, fully fleshed characters of varying complexities might be all that’s really needed.
A former First Lady of immense privileged and a pristine facade may not seem like the makings of someone many people can relate to, but the mastery of Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy is that it humanizes her in a way American history hasn’t been able to.
The film largely follows Jackie Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy in 1963, but the vehicle of how this unfolds is through flashbacks that appear during an interview with a writer for Life magazine. At present Jackie has faded from the public eye by retreating to a Hyannis Port mansion and the objective of the interview is to allow her to reveal herself to a nation that’s seemingly disregarded her mourning as a widow and view her more as an baroque accessory to one of the nation’s most beloved figures.
We are taken back to Jackie’s first real exposure to the American public through a televised tour of the White House restoration. During the broadcast it shows her being directed by off-camera handlers to smile and apear personable but it’s obviously an uncomfortable experience for her. Though the tour is considered a great success, it reveals how introverts struggle exposing themselves to strangers. This is the running motif of the film because in each of the flashbacks shown, the tranquil and dignified image of Jackie known to the public seemed to be drastically at odds from the inner turmoil gnawing at her from within.
The degree of how hurt Jackie was after her husband’s death is focused on for much of the film’s flashbacks and reveals how serious it was through on-on-one conversations with a priest. The loss of her husband has caused her to struggle with her faith, her motherhood, and even left her questioning the point of living. While this is happening, the immediate world around her is moving on at a rapid pace. A new administration is sworn in, her role has been given away to someone else, and her closest ally, Robert F. Kennedy seems to be focused more on managing the political ramifications of the Kennedys to join her in mourning.
The culminating point of the film is the seeing the assassination from her point of view and watching her stumble around the following hours with blood still on her gorgeous pink outfit.
Personally, I believe Portman’s performance should have won her an Oscar. For me Jackie Kennedy has always been a historical figure detached from ones I’ve ascribed much significance to but this performance has made me look at her in an entirely different way. Part of the reason why is because I’m also somewhat introverted and I never really considered how difficult it must be to keep the appearance of having things together at times when underneath the surface emotions are imploding. Portman’s performance is a master class on becoming a different person and exposing the intimate emotions of that person’s life to others. This is especially stark when compared to the otherwise lifeless depictions of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy seen beside her in the very same film.
I believe one of the reasons this film leaves such an impression on people is because of how authentic grief is depicted when it grips you. After all, grief is a universal emotion every human being goes through at some point in their lives and in the film viewers are taken through every step of Jackie’s deeply personal mourning. Adding to the grief shown on screen is a haunting soundtrack that equally invites audiences to experience what it must feel like to briefly lose hope.
Much like many other of this year’s Oscar nominated films, Jackie is not an enjoyable experience. It’s purposefully bleak but to better understand Jackie Kennedy’s mourning, how could it not be?