This film was reviewed on November 18th as first seen at this year’s AFI Fest presented by Audi.
Timing plays a massive role into our view of films no matter how much we try to be objective. When employed correctly, though, a movie can strike an exact chord. Perhaps in the wake of the most disheartening election in most of our lifetimes, an intimate look at the Presidency and those closest to it is exactly the type of film we need now.
Of course, ‘Jackie’ tells the story of the First Lady and specifically, the relationship of that role with the American people and the US President’s closest confidantes. Focusing squarely on the week after JFK’s assassination, Natalie Portman takes on the titular role and breathes necessary life into a character most often seen as just a pretty picture in textbooks. The film undoubtedly belongs to her, she’s in every single scene, and in most shots, the camera stays as close as it possibly can to Portman’s performance. It’s been 6 years since ‘Black Swan’ topped my list as one of the best of the year, and in the time since, Natalie Portman has been noticeably absent (with a good excuse). In ‘Jackie,’ we’re reminded how essential she is to movies. Many talented figures feel ageless and take on roles written for the same age demographic of actor/actress, and yet we’ve seen Portman go from being a child star in ‘Leon,’ to teenager in ‘Star Wars,’ mid-20’s in ‘Swan,’ and now play a character in her 30’s, and each one is transformative and yet simultaneously authentic to Portman. If there’s any doubt she had the chops for another Oscar nomination, let those be dismissed: this is Portman firing on all cylinders.
The film’s question/theme is one we ought to be discussing as well: the line between private and public life in the White House. In the aftermath of tragedy, Jackie Kennedy grieved the death of her husband but also was required to make decisions that the entire nation would watch and presumably analyze, and choose how to best represent herself and her husband as national leaders. Much of the film talks about legacy and historical impact: perhaps every President is secretly obsessed with how they will be viewed in the years to come, and because few people know them as real people, they quickly become mythological figures. I recently watched a Criterion Collection film called ‘Secret Honor’ which is a one-man play starring Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon. If any takeaway was to be had, it is that the US Presidents in our pop culture are similar to how Shakespeare utilized the Kings of his era: they become characterized icons that are molded over time based on what we think of them. ‘
‘Jackie’ is about the ending of one presidency and the passing on to another, which plays close to home given the magnitude of the next changing of the guard we’re about to have in January. But it’s mostly about this tightrope balance between private life and public life that the First Lady must walk while making decisions. And these questions could not be more relevant today, as we face a President-elect who has essentially branded his way to the top despite it being a proven facade. Great historical films capture an era, yet ring true of the present: here is one such entry.
‘Jackie’ forgoes conventional biography for capturing the layered emotions a woman under unimaginable circumstances faced. It’s not a tearjerker, but in a way that’s the point: to be a public servant is to be stoic even under the worst circumstances. Instead, it’s an intellectual and emotional look at a flash in history that would never be forgotten, and in today’s world, what can be learned from the past. I certainly hope it generates as much internal discussion for you as it did for me.
‘Jackie’ is rated R for brief strong violence and some language. 99 minutes. In select theaters December 2nd.