Jackie, 2016, 4 ½ stars

Kennedys come to life in Jackie

Natalie Portman wows in Larraín’s biopic

 Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, December 10, 2016

Natalie Portman in “Jackie.” (Image copyright Jackie Productions / Wild Bunch / Fabula.)

Biopics about the Kennedys have been done ad nauseam, so perhaps it’s only fitting that a foreign director with little interest in either the Kennedys or biopics would be the best choice to reinvent the sub-genre.

Chilean director Pablo Larraín has a reputation for offering fascinatingly unique perspectives on political and social topics, as in No and The Club. And in Jackie, he successfully creates a Camelot that never was but always will be by focusing on Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following President Kennedy’s assassination. Astonishingly, he also produces both a hyper-realistic experience and a dreamlike one.

As with all directors, he had help. His most important collaborator is Natalie Portman, who gives the best female performance of the year, one on par with her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan, which was directed by Darren Aronofsky, a co-producer on Jackie. Though she adopts her character’s dialect and mannerisms, Portman goes beyond mere imitation and captures Mrs. Kennedy’s essence.

The second is cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, whose mix of close-ups, beautifully framed medium shots and super 16mm film stock blend perfectly with the real footage of the Kennedys. He and Larraín even used an old tube video camera, like those used in No, to mimic footage of a real-life TV tour of the White House from the early 1960s. And, of course, the art direction and sound design are essential in completing the trick. The mix of real and fictional is both seamless and haunting.

Third is writer Noah Oppenheim, who based (and framed) his story on Theodore H. White’s Life interview with the former first lady a week following the assassination. Fourth is composer Mica Levi, whose heavily featured score lends a magical, wistful quality to the film. And fifth is Sebastián Sepúlveda’s editing, which is rambling, non-linear and even jumbled: a perfect complement to the shock, confusion and bewilderment that Mrs. Kennedy and others must have felt at the time. All of these elements combine to produce a movie that is both brutal and gentle: a rare feat.

Three members of the supporting cast also deserve praise. Billy Crudup (as White) is instantly believable, John Hurt is effective as a priest whom the former first lady turns to for spiritual advice, and Peter Sarsgaard is astonishing as Bobby Kennedy.

But perhaps the film’s greatest achievement relates to what I call the “world theory,” which suggests that if a movie thoroughly convinces you that the world it’s presenting is authentic, then it can fully manipulate your emotions whether its cinematic style is realism, romanticism, surrealism or even absurdism. That world simply has to be true to itself and its aesthetic principles. Perhaps not every element of the movie is perfect, but once you buy into the world on the screen, you’re hooked. And Jackie is the biggest Kennedy hook since Oliver Stone’s JFK. And if it’s not the best film of 2016, which it might be, it’s certainly the most mythic, as it taps into the consciousness of America.

“People need their history. It gives them strength,” we’re told in Jackie. Yet Jackie herself is heard to remark, “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” Still, the Jackie presented here grasps the importance of her and her husband’s role in history, and Larraín gives us a fresh view of how she overcame her profound shock and grief in November 1963 to help forge the Kennedy legacy we’ve come to know today.

Copyright 2016 © Cameron Meier