Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Noah Oppenheim
Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig
A twinkling symphony of subtlety and tragedy, director Pablo Larrain delivers a lesson in how to make a biopic. The secret, it seems, is to tell a story we know so well as if it’s the first time it’s ever been told.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the 35th President of the United States, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy (Portman) is forced to deal with the loss of her husband, the loss of her identity as First Lady and the fact that, even after such a devastation to the American people, the world keeps on turning.
Told through a series of flashbacks, Jackie Kennedy is interviewed only days after her husband was shot three times while riding in the back of a black Ford Lincoln in Dallas, Texas. The man Billy Crudup plays, billed as ‘The Journalist’, is clearly a representation of Theodore H White, the man who interviewed a bereaved Mrs Kennedy for his famous cover story of Life magazine.
The interview, along with her conversations with conversations with a Priest (played by the late John Hurt) act as Mrs Kennedy’s release, never being able to express herself publicly or privately with regards to her grief at losing her husband of less than a decade. She expresses anger at the way her husband was treated prior to his assassination, refusing to change out of her now famous pink Chanel suit she was wearing when the bullets hit, soaking in her husband’s blood. She wanted the press, and the world, to see the blood that should’ve been on the hands of the people who made posters of JFK accusing him of treason for attempting to bring about meaningful civil rights reform.
In her walks with the Priest, she philosophically confronts the nature of God and chance asking why is tragedy such a huge part of life and if God is in everything, was he indeed in the bullets that killed her husband. And there is her ongoing grief over the death of their infant son, Patrick, who “lived long enough for us to fall in love”.
The interview itself is more of a conversation between two people trying to construct a coherent narrative about the recent events, both with opposing opinions on how Jackie’s story should be told.
There is also the issue of the incoming President, a man hastily sworn into office as his predecessor lay dead on a hospital operating table. Of course, the world had to move on, but for Jackie she couldn’t see why it shouldn’t stop for her and her children. Lyndon B Johnson became President and Lady Bird Johnson was the new First Lady of the United States, leaving JFK in the ground and Jackie without her husband, her home and her status.
In an effort to affirm her position in the hearts of the American people, she takes charge of the funeral. She orders that the Irish Honor Guard and the Scottish Black Watch regiment be in attendance. She wants to walk six blocks from the church to the cemetery, in full view of the public, with several heads of state doing the same. Despite all efforts to advise, coerce and control her, she steamrolls her way through putting several security agencies through the ringer and causing a good few people to age rapidly.
By her side, and often at odds with her, is her husband’s younger brother Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard). Bobby, like Jackie, is also grieving and attempting to control the status quo in a situation which neither of them can grasp. Bobby, witnessing the television report which confirms the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, orders the entire room not to speak one word of it to Jackie in the lead up to the beginning of a grand Catholic funeral. Him telling the current president of the United States to sit down as he barks his orders is indicative of the power status. Johnson may have been the President but Bobby was a Kennedy.
Portman’s portrayal of the grieving Jackie Kennedy is frank, pragmatic and bordering on unsympathetic. As a woman who viewed her position akin to royalty, Portman’s delivers a career-defining performance as Jackie. Her apparent coldness is nothing more than pragmatism. She knows she is a woman who still holds a great deal of responsibility. And this is where Portman understands her part perfectly.
John Hurt delivers one of his final performances flawlessly as an aging Priest with wisdom and reverence. His two-handers with Portman are a joy to witness and serve as a reminder of the quality of actor the world has lost.
Billy Crudup’s performance as the Journalist is understated and thoughtful. He doesn’t act with Portman, but reacts to her delivery. He’s not in charge of the interview, or any room which occupies Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Pablo Larrain’s take on the Kennedy assassination is original and considered, without delving into the fanciful or philosophical. We get the chance to take a step back from the chaos and witness the demise of a dynasty from the point of view of the most courageous, yet vulnerable, participant. His long, dream-like sequences of a lost Jackie wandering the empty halls and rooms of the White House mirror the feeling of the film perfectly.
An original and insightful view that doesn’t involve a grassy knoll.