25 January 2017

"History's Harsh" — Jackie Review

With the crystal clear vision of hindsight, it seems obvious that John F. Kennedy would become known as a great president (especially given the recent plummeting of the bar) but in November 1963, it was, for his wife Jackie, far from inevitable. Pablo Larraín's new film Jackie focuses on the briefest of windows in the days after JFK's assassination during which the titular widow attempts to stage manage his death and secure his legacy. Natalie Portman is fascinating in the lead role and although the film is a little slow in places, her performance won me over by the end.

The film opens as a journalist (Billy Crudup) arrives at the Kennedys' Cape Cod home to interview Jackie a few days after her husband's death. Grief-stricken but desperate to be a good hostess and to give a good interview, Jackie reflects back on her husband's brief presidency, offering up all-too-honest reactions the journalist knows he will never be able to print. "You'll have to say something personal eventually," he goads her, but it isn't clear that he is right. She tries again and, over the course of the 100-minute film, we get various snapshots of grief: the assassination (the full brutality of which only comes towards the end), the funeral arrangements, the handover to the new president and the leaving of the White House.

There are happier memories too, though, including Larraín's version of the real White House Tour documentary during which Jackie presented her remodelling of the residence to the American people. It helps presidents to be surrounded by things that have belonged to previous great presidents, she explains. And it is this pursuit of greatness that drives her actions after the assassination. She quizzes staff members at random about obscure presidents, contrasting their responses with their reactions to her questions about Lincoln, eventually deciding that she should seek inspiration from Lincoln's funeral for JFK's own funeral. "History's harsh," she notes.

Legacy is central, then, but legend and myth play a key role too as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue becomes Jackie's own Camelot. Lerner and Loewe's musical of the same name made its début just three years earlier and its music, lyrics and essence echo throughout Larraín's movie. Form and beauty are crucial in this world. Portman's Jackie never allows her pain to distract her long from her decisions about appearances — whether to continue wearing the iconic, bloodstained pink Chanel suit, for instance.

Beautiful and stylish as the film is, its bleaker moments outnumber the lighter intermissions. Tonally, it reminded me a lot of a French New Wave film — you can almost imagine Claude Chabrol or François Truffaut's influences in places. Mica Levi's haunting, questioning score only deepened these resemblances.

All told, Jackie is an interesting, if not always easy to watch, film (I found Larraín's 2012 film about the 1988 referendum in Chile much more enjoyable). Portman really does carry the film — Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and especially Greta Gerwig as White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman are somewhat wasted — so it's lucky she is so good in the role: charismatic but complicated, and forceful but grief-stricken.

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