To see the issues with Jackie, the newest film from Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, it helps to compare it with another movie about a national figure dealing with the death of a family member. In 2006’s The Queen, Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II is unsympathetic to the mourning provoked by Princess Diana’s tragic death. She clings to her privacy and refuses to speak to the press for several days, unaware that her role as Britain’s symbolic figurehead requires that she put aside personal qualms and respond to the nation’s grief. Hers is a nuanced, moving tale of old adapting to new, a story of an aging elite forced to reckon with the populist, decentered coverage of the Information Age.
In almost every respect, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is the total opposite of Elizabeth. Young, attractive, and energetic, she’s fully aware of the importance of image, and throughout this movie, we watch as she constantly, frantically seeks to use the media to secure her and her husband’s legacy. It’s a desire that barely brakes for security concerns – after her husband’s assassination, with uncertainty still in the air, she insists on appearing before the press and holding a public funeral procession through the streets of Washington, “just like they did for Lincoln.” And in many instances, her efforts even spill over into crude micromanaging: the movie’s framing device is a LIFE interview where Jackie directly tells her interviewer (Billy Crudup) that she’ll decide what he can and can’t write. The fact that we constantly see her spending time in front of a mirror, whether she’s rehearsing a speech, wiping blood off her cheeks, or simply staring at her picture-perfect face, isn’t mere coincidence.
Larraín tries very hard to strip away the barriers history has erected between us and the “real” Jackie. In an attempt to make the experience more immersive, the story follows a stream-of-consciousness structure, and many of the shots come in a grainy, archival resolution. Yet the irony of Larraín’s efforts is that the person he ends up unearthing is anything but likable. His Jackie is so preoccupied with how others perceive her that almost nothing she says or does comes off as genuine. Even her grief for her husband doesn’t feel completely authentic, seeing as she acknowledges, among other things, that he had his difficulties remaining faithful. And in the moments when she initially appears to be letting out her true emotions, her venting is always immediately followed by an onslaught of consoling platitudes from whoever is listening; watching her reminded me of a friend who’d always mention how “fat” she was so that others could emphatically tell her she was the thinnest person they’d ever met. At least Mirren’s Elizabeth was someone with whom you could sympathize – she was stubborn and arrogant, but her dislike of putting on appearances made her actions look sincere. This Jackie is so self-conscious, attention-seeking, and insecure that she’s impossible to connect with, and Portman’s soulless acting (even if she nails the physical mannerisms) adds little redeeming nuance.
In a way, the movie serves perhaps one good purpose: it shows just how much our impressions of the famous owe themselves to media manipulation. With all the backstage shenanigans you witness here, the Kennedys wind up resembling the legendary dynastic figures of historical lore only in appearance; you watch Jackie appear on TV and can’t help but notice just how much planning went into her unnaturally cloying voice. Yet even if you approach the movie from this angle, you find as you go further in that “image is a big deal” is the one rudimentary message it has to offer, like a trumpeter who can only play the same, obnoxious note over and over again. And in the fawning closing scene, where Jackie dances with John to the music of Camelot, the film ends up tacitly affirming the very calculated romanticization we’ve come to find so distasteful. (Side note: this movie also suffers from a serious case of “This feels like the ending…but wait, it isn’t” syndrome.) What does Mr. Larraín see in Jackie’s frenetic efforts to build a Kennedy cult that compels him to give it his implicit endorsement? It’s a mind-boggling question to end on. But after 1.5 hours of what’s best described as a monotonous exercise in self-serving angst, it’s not all that out of place.
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt
Running Time: 99 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for brief strong violence and some language.”
Produced by: Juan de Dios Larraín, Darren Aronofsky, Mickey Liddell, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Directed by: Pablo Larraín