'Jackie' Review: One of the Best Movies of the Year, and One of the Best Biopics Ever Made
Last year, right around this time, I wrote a review of The Revenant describing it as “the perfect movie for people who think movies are for p*ssies.” Meaning, it’s all well and good to sit in the dark and watch a movie and feel feelings, but what if you want the movie-going experience to be more like the feeling of grilling a steak from a bison you hunted and killed yourself? In the woods. In the snow. Whilst naked. That seemed to be how tough The Revenant wanted you to feel in watching it.
Here’s the thing. That’s also how I would describe Jackie. If any part of you thought this movie was going to be standard biopic fare, covering the life and times of a former first lady in any way you’ve seen before, it’s so much more than that. This movie feels like work. It’s only 99 minutes long, but I swear they were the longest 99 minutes of my life. Not because the movie drags, not even for one of those, but because the entire movie is so full, so complex, and so painful, that each minute seems to be stretched and filled to an impossible degree. The movie is work, and it is hard. By the end, I felt like I had just spent 99 minutes on a treadmill at full speed, while vomiting the entire time.
Hold on, I feel like maybe I’m not selling this well.
Jackie is shot as two separate movies, woven together. The first is a one-one-one interview with an unnamed reporter (played by Billy Crudup and based on Theodore H. White, who wrote the article “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue”), set about a week after President Kennedy’s death. Even when her words here veer into the uber-emotional, the entire point of this section of the film is Taking Control and Shutting Shit Down. She tells the reporter the story of the day of the assassination, yes, but more than that, she is making it clear that she is TELLING A STORY. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but the point of this movie is not to be true. The point is to tell the truth as all real humans see the truth: as it happened, but also as she experienced it, and as it fits into the narrative and legacy of both her own story as a woman, a wife, and a First Lady, but also into the story of the country and. the legacy of the Kennedy Camelot. Sounds like a lot to cover, right? It is.
The other movie in Jackie flashes back mostly to the day of the assassination, although it begins with her famous first-ever televised tour of the White House, which served to convince many Americans that this First Lady was a vapid over-spending socialite. From that day until her husband’s funeral, we follow a woman who doesn’t always appear to be fully present, or overly loving. And yet she’s not quite calculating opportunist, not full doting wife. A lesser movie would probably paint her into one of these corners while displaying how she constructed the other persona knowingly. Jackie doesn’t offer any of these clear answers. And that’s what allows it to transcend itself.
In these flashbacks, we see Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath— as in minutes, hours after— of her husband’s death. We see her laser-focus on logistics, and we see her getting drunk to the Camelot soundtrack. We see her solidifying her husband’s legacy through a funeral to rival Lincoln’s, and we see her, lovingly but fearfully caring for (or at least about) her children.
But describing the actions and events of the this ‘second’ film doesn’t actually do it justice. There’s no actual way to describe the events of this movie— as with the first— because it’s not actually about events, as historically important as those may be. No, what it’s really about is Jackie Kennedy’s mind.
This is where the film transcends the usual biopic formula. Every element of this movie is expertly crafted. Pablo Larraín, in his first English-language feature, has made the most intimate, and intimately terrifying, movie of the year. Combining an unsettling score from Under the Skin composer Mica Levi and an across the board stellar supporting cast (including Greta Gerwig as Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman and Peter Saarsgard’s AMAZING turn as Bobby Kennedy), Jackie accomplishes that rare biopic feat of doing justice to both the character and the history, while also producing a complicated, engaging movie that could easily stand alone in its own right.
I haven’t even mentioned Portman yet, have I? It’s hard to oversell the magnificence of this performance. On a superficial level, she nails the impression. From the oddly inviting stiffness to the totally weird accent (half Mid-Atlantic, half Jersey), Portman inhabits this character fully. But then she goes so much deeper. Shot almost entirely in close-up, it feels like Natalie Portman reaches through the screen, into your chest, looks you straight in the eye, and just holds your heart for 99 minutes.
During the movie, my fiancee went to the restroom, and when he came back, he told me that there was an older man in a stall, bawling his eyes out. Not having been alive for these events, I was almost surprised to know that someone who was could be that affected by this retelling. That the movie did justice to the history, as— to me— it was doing justice to the inner workings of a complicated woman’s mind. It would be natural for a person of that generation, especially an older man, to long for a movie from the point of view of the President, or even Bobby Kennedy. But perhaps no one involved in that tragedy is a better figure for this story than Jackie, than this woman who spent her adult life invisibly supporting the man she knew would change the country, who really did transform his legacy as well as the future of not just the role of First Ladies, but the White House itself. And who was then left without money, without a home, without anything, in one single moment of violence.
This movie is about many things, but it never really tells you what is at its core. It doesn’t make it that easy. Is it about Jackie Kennedy’s journey as a woman? As a politician’s wife? Is it about her constructing a narrative to preserve a family legacy or an American legacy? Or is she constructing anything at all? Where is the line between truth and, if not fiction, a guided truth? A story? Jackie may make you ask all of these questions, but it doesn’t provide any answers. If that sounds frustrating, well, it is. But the entire movie flows so naturally and tragically that the frustration is intimate, and personal. Make no mistake, this movie is difficult, but it is beautiful. As difficult and beautiful and real as the human mind.
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