Whatever you think Jackie will be is quickly tossed aside by the first orchestral bend of Mica Levi’s score.
Any sense that this may be a traditional biopic or a glamour piece is rattled by those disconcerting notes. That notion is further discarded by the film itself, its secret being that it isn’t a biopic.
Okay, let’s not get too out there on you. It is indeed about Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) and the life she lived. It’s hyper focused on one week, the week following the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). It has historical details and appearance from the other men of power in that era, Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch). You even meet people like Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) who would be the sort of character and relationship a biopic would focus on.
I say it’s not a biopic because of how uninterested the film is in those standard beats, in telling the story, in gleaming meaning from the events of her life. It’s not interested in what history, but rather how we create history. It’s not trying to understand what the myths of the Kennedys are, but rather how those myths got created.
It’s why I chose the title above, a refrain from the movie and a quote from the musical “Camelot.” The frame story for the historical moments is of a reporter (Billy Crudup) who’s come to speak to Jackie just a week after her husband died about the events of the preceding weeks. Jackie makes mention that the record of the musical was favorite bedtime listening in the Kennedy household and the lines that resonated most were in its final song:
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot
That story is what associated the musical with the Kennedys and led to dubbing the Kennedy years “The Camelot Era.”
But it’s that association that is the legend being created. It is true, yes, but it was a truth that was chosen to represent an ideal. Jackie is about the stories we tell about history and how the people of history are able to shape them.
And more importantly about how they so often are just moments, brief flashes that we seek to grab. A point is made that no one remembered William McKinley and no one remembered James Garfield, two other Presidents assassinated, but they all remembered Lincoln. Yes, he was a great man, but he was given a massive funeral, his death was made into an event. In death, he passed into legend, and Jackie seeks to replicate that for her husband. To solidify who he was, or who he could be.
To make his legacy seem immortal, and that his death is the changing of an American era. That there was a Camelot and there will never be another Camelot.
And that’s how we think about it, isn’t it?
It’s a powerful way to look at history, as a shapeable thing, as a thing that doesn’t emerge, but is molded. That it’s a performance and a perception.
Performance is at the center of this film with its two co-stars.
One is Natalie Portman pulling off career-best work as Jackie Kennedy. This is an intensely arch performance, not an ounce of naturalism to find. Yet she throws herself in wholeheartedly, wearing every bit of her stage even in the moments she’s not around. She plays Jackie as someone who had to learn to be on the public stage but who has no shame in doing so. Less shining diplomat, more event planner.
Larrain is giving her every chance to succeed, fundamentally orienting the film around her visually. It’s all about her face, her reactions, the way she’s conversing and talking with other people. This is gorgeous, haunting camera and it’s about the fog and the difficulty that she’s taking to perceive the world around her. This is not naturalistic, but rather deeply expressionist work, just like Portman herself.
The other star is Mica Levi’s score. Anyone who saw Under the Skin should have found this no surprise, but Levi is the kind of composer who really can take over a film, who can make the textures of her score into the textures of the film. It’s haunting and disorienting and evocative of a time where nothing is in its right place, and nothing seems real.
It’s a shame the script didn’t get just one more pass. This film is at its best as a visual and musical poem, a parade of image and sound that dunks you into a week of national and very personal grieving. When characters talk, they’re largely spouting cliche and awkwardly staged lines when they don’t need to, though maybe that’s the point. This film puts up no line between performance in public and in private, at times to its detriment.
But perhaps that’s missing the forest for the trees. Jackie is a wholly unique work as the story of a person, a story of them in the tide of history and their rage to shape it. Well worth its consideration and well-worth looking at, especially now, to remember when we believed that there was a Camelot.