From now until February 26th, I will be taking to be taking a brief look at the nominees for The 89th Annual Academy Awards, one film at a time in several categories.
Nominated for: Best Actress – Natalie Portman | Best Costume Design | Best Original Score
There is an odd musical cue at the very beginning of Pablo Larrain’s historical drama Jackie that sounds as if it might be more at home in a horror movie. The best way to describe it is to ask you to imagine that the score is imitating an oncoming train. This musical beat plays several times throughout the film and at first I pondered that it might have seemed a bit inappropriate given the subject matter. This is the story of Jackie Kennedy before, after and for the most part during, those four horrifying days in 1963 from the moment that she witnessed her husband’s brutal murder until the moment that she buried him. Through her eyes, we see the rushing tide of events and of emotional turmoil; sorrow, agony, anger, and emotional crisis both inward and outward that were crushing her in those terrible days. For her, it was a horror show. The world and the course of history were rushing at her like a runaway freight train. From that moment on, it is reasonable to imagine that she may have felt as if she had been hit by one.
Jackie is a masterful study in human crisis, how human beings deal with extreme tragedy and the immediate effects, particularly when they are in the public eye. It takes an event we know very well and humanizes it so that it lifts itself above the countless array of matter-of-course documentaries and hokey dramatic recreations that sensationalize and/or trivialize the events of the assassination. Instead, this film is an intimate and closely observed bio-pic of the inward personal Hell that besieged the suddenly widowed first lady during those first few days as she struggled not only to get a handle of what had happened but also to deal with the myriad of circumstances that were to follow. She questions herself, her role as a mother, human nature, and also questions her own spirituality which she frequently lays out to a kindly Irish priest (John Hurt) who is caring but also very matter of fact.
A very public personality in the immediacy of the assassination, the eyes of the world are upon her but Jackie finds that an onslaught of emotion and expectations of propriety are laid thick upon herself and her image. At this moment when she finds herself bombarded by events, the worst is that in a country broken down in sorrow, she can find little time to get a handle on her own. She finds that even in the torment of those events, she is still being instructed on how to act, what to say, and what the proper emotional notes are.
Yet, the chaos of the moment is unrelenting. She not only has to deal with the moment, but also the rush of transition of administration from Kennedy to Johnson. The White House staff is not unsympathetic but they are understandably concerned about the future of the country, their government, their personal lives and their careers. Very quickly boxes are being packed and personal effects are being moved in and out of The White House before she has even had a chance to inform Caroline that her father has died.
The staff rushes to get things in order, but always at the center is Jackie who returns to a White House that feels like it has been hit by a tornado. There is something in the editing and cinematography and the production design that reminded me of The Shining. There is a very Kubrick-ian feel to the White House bedroom – the furniture is too perfect, too perfectly placed. Everything is organized physically while the woman at the center stands in disarray.
The narrative structure feels chaotic but in a very functional way. We see the rushing of events unfolding in a whirlwind of information, outward public response and the leanings on Jackie of all of the things that have to get done in a matter of hours; the funeral, the press, the final resting place and the tumult of questions of what will come afterwards. It is all crumbling before her as she sees her world coming apart. “I have nothing of my own,” she tells a journalist, and it has more than one meaning. Jackie wrestles with grief matched with the expectations that weigh heavy upon her shoulders. Everyone is out for themselves and the only person who shares her grief is Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) whose heart and soul aches at the prospect that the future that he and Jack envisioned for the country will never happen. Both Bobby and Jackie are broken, lonely people faced with a cold reality that neither they, nor the world, would have ever thought possible – Camelot in smithereens.
Jackie is played in a masterful performance by Natalie Portman who cannot have had much fun playing this role, but who reaches down into the depths of her soul to give a performance that I think should get her a second Oscar. Portman has always been one of the most expressive actors but here she manages total control over her physical performance. She is an actress whose emotional states always lie just under the skin and here she exerts control over those emotions from grief to anger to frustration to bitterness. Jackie’s situation is rocked by chaos, but Portman seems able to modulate that turmoil in a way that is tangible and filled with great empathy. We can feel it.
The first time we see Jackie she is walking around outside the house at Hyannis Port just one week after the assassination. Her lovely face is a mask of sorrow and pain and confusion from which it will not recover. Through the process of grief and the acting out of the role she is expected to play, we can always sense that under the surface something inside of her is screaming. She is allowed very few moments of solitude. Portman is given a scene here that is as startling as it is heartbreaking. Jackie, just having returned to The White House from Dallas, is left alone in her bedroom still wearing the strawberry pink Chanel suit spattered with her husband’s blood. As she strips out of her cloths and into the shower, Portman is allowed notes of anguish and sorrow and pain that this fine actress has never been allowed to display before. It is a stunning, wordless three-minute scene of pure acting, pure emotion.
The story of the immediacy of the assassination is framed by two historical events, one after the shooting and another before. The major framework is the scene at Hyannis Port one week after the shooting, when a bitter and beleaguered Jackie gives an interview to Life Magazine journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup). He asks the standard questions but she is less willing to give him standard answers. Understanding the temptation on his part to sensationalize the interview, she gives him bold and unguarded information, including a gut-wrenching retelling of that moment, and then instructs him not to print it. She does this several times based around everything from the shooting itself to the information that “I don’t smoke,” which she does constantly. It is a manner of control over the press that she has never been able to have before.
The other framing device is where the filmmaking really strikes us. It takes place during Jackie’s famous Emmy-winning Valentine’s Day television tour of the White House in 1961. The first lady is instructed in her performance for the camera, especially the smile that we sense is hard to maintain. But something about the filmmaking here is really kind of interesting. The recreation of the television special is seen in black and white, of course, but the sound is muffled as it might have sounded on television at the time. With that, Jackie’s words don’t seem to be her own. There is a strange disconnect between what she is saying and what we are hearing. She goes through the motions as CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood asks the standard questions but her lips seem to be moving to pre-recorded words. I initially assumed that it was a flaw, but then it struck me that the disconnection in her words represents the way in which the public persona of Jackie was separate from the real person that she was in life. Seeing her through the prism of the new medium of television we see that an image has been created, a distorted image that is far from the truth.
I was stunned by how brilliantly crafted this film is, especially when so many recent bio-pics (The Butler, Jobs, 42, Get On Up, The Iron Lady) aren’t so much interested in their subjects as they are in rushing toward the next red letter moment. Here, the focus isn’t on recreating moments and getting all the furniture in place, it’s on the emotional devastation heaped upon a woman whose image had been lionized by history and how she negotiated the difficult path through the darkest moment in America’s recent national consciousness.
This is a great American film. It is a portrait of tragedy and loss and the attempts to visualize the sorrow and grief of an event that this country has never been able to lay to rest. Jackie is by no means a happy movie, but it gives a face to a tragic event that has been portrayed by history for its details and less for its emotions. America doesn’t have any mythologies as it did with the Kennedy family and that notion ties up the film’s ending. Jackie stands in much the same position that King Arthur did at the end of the musical “Camelot” at the realization that the grand spirit and lofty ideals of the once-proud kingdom are gone. “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”