I WANT THEM TO SEE WHAT THEY HAVE DONE TO JACK.
Chilean director Pablo Larraín was about to make his first American film, but had doubts. He had been offered a biopic about Jackie Kennedy, but didn’t know anything about the Kennedys and the assassination other than what he (and we) had read in newspapers and books. But after reading Noah Oppenheim’s script (which had been on the interesting Hollywood Black List of unproduced screenplays), he felt a connection to the former First Lady. And those who have seen the film that first brought Larraín international attention, No (2012), will recognize his interest in how powerful figures use advertising and the media to shape a public image.
Life of a grieving widow
Some time after the murder of her husband, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) receives a journalist (Billy Crudup) at her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. His job is to chronicle the life of the grieving widow and let her tell the nation what happened from her perspective. Jackie, who knows how the media works and what the people expect from her, takes on the painful task of recalling the chaotic events of November 22nd, 1963, the day when she ended up sitting in an open limousine racing to a hospital, holding her husband’s head in her lap.
The following days became a grueling test, as she had to deal with her own grief, two small children and the planning of a state funeral, made even more complicated by the fact that everybody feared new assassination attempts in the nation’s capital…
Approaching the project the right way
A colleague of mine wasn’t too thrilled about this film; she had hoped to learn more about Jackie’s life, not just a retread of these horrific events. But I have to disagree. Some of the least effective biopics fail because the filmmakers try to cover too much. Oppenheim approached this project the right way, becoming fascinated with the daunting challenge of what Jackie Kennedy went through in the short period from the murder to the Arlington ceremony, and what her experiences and behavior say about her as a person.
At first, it took me a while to get used to the mannerisms in Portman’s performance, but it becomes highly nuanced as the story progresses. We see Jackie talking to the journalist, Bobby Kennedy and a priest she confides in differently, in ways that help her achieve what she needs. In the first case, she’s somewhat manipulative, in the second more direct, refusing to let her brother-in-law get away with the secrecy that she always hated about her husband, and in the third case, angry but vulnerable, open to wise and consoling words from a man who is intelligent enough not to be condescending or offer easy answers. The priest is played by John Hurt in one of his last screen appearances, in one scene touchingly ruminating on how even a priest sometimes fears death and stares into the darkness. In spite of all the ceremony and details surrounding the dramatic events, in the end this is primarily a film about grief and why we choose to survive, and the tone of it is appropriately mournful, with a strikingly original, harsh music score by Mica Levi.
The cinematography blends seamlessly with archive footage and recreates some of it with older equipment, just as Larraín did with that grainy 1980s videotape look for No. Madeline Fontaine’s costume design brings us back to the ’60s and the fashion that made Jackie an icon.
In the end, it’s interesting to see how Jackie in the middle of her grief and tumultuous events had the composure to preserve the image of her and her husband’s White House, creating almost a fairy tale inspired by a musical, ”Camelot”. Now there’s a PR genius.
Jackie 2016-U.S.-Chile-France. 99 min. Color. Produced by Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel, Juan de Dios Larraín, Mickey Liddell, Pascal Caucheteux. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim. Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine. Music: Mica Levi. Costume Design: Madeline Fontaine. Cast: Natalie Portman (Jacqueline Kennedy), Peter Sarsgaard (Robert F. Kennedy), Greta Gerwig (Nancy Tuckerman), Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella… Richard E. Grant.
Trivia: Aronofsky originally intended to direct the film, with Rachel Weisz in the lead.
BAFTA: Best Costume Design. Venice: Best Screenplay.
Last word: “I said I would only do this with Natalie Portman. […] [Aronofsky] tells me he’ll set up the meeting and then it’s my problem. We meet and I tell her, ‘If you don’t do this movie I’m not doing it either. No pressure, but that’s how it is.’ Natalie asks to see my movies. We set up screenings. I was scared. Here’s Natalie alone in a cinema watching ‘The Club’! We meet again. We have another draft in which I had [screenwriter] Noah [Oppenheim] remove all the scenes without Jackie. Natalie accepts. I honestly didn’t expect someone like her to work with someone who made the movies I made. But this says a lot about her, that she’s willing to take risks with people.” (Larraín, Film Comment)