‘Jackie’ A Stunning Look Into the Heart of Grief (FILM REVIEW)

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Our history books talk about the JFK assassination, rightfully, as a national tragedy. Though I wouldn’t be born for almost 18 years, the ripple of effects of his murder tore through my childhood—perhaps owing to the fact that I grew up in Dallas—and its marks remain across my psyche and the collective psyche of all Americans to this day. Year after year, publications across the country post memorials on November 22, reminding us all of our collective grief.

Lost in that is the reality that not only was a president murdered as his car drove through Dealy Plaza, but so too was a father, a brother, and a husband. We of course understand it on a level; for three decades until her death in 1994, Jackie Kennedy became a symbol of our grief—“imagine what Jackie feels”, “poor Jackie”—and of our eventual healing. Her façade of celebrity gave us the perfect wall from which to watch. As she grieved, so too did we. As she healed, so too could we.

I suppose that’s the job of a First Lady. We look to the wives of our presidents as a model for who and what we should be, what we should strive for, and how we should act. When you’re as beloved as Jackie Kennedy was—and still is—that responsibility, fair or no, is magnified immensely, especially in the face of your husband’s assassination.

While the symbol is strong, and good for Americans as a collective, it’s all too easy to forget that behind the symbol is an actual person, with real feelings, with conflicting thoughts. Jackie, the latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain (Neruda) is a magnificent look beyond the symbol that Jackie Kennedy became and into the mind of a person living through the worst week of her life.

Natalie Portman gives a heartbreaking, career defining performance as the former First Lady as she attempts to process the devastating loss of her husband and of her nation’s leader. At its core, it is a case study in grief, richly humanizing the woman behind the symbol. Powerful, raw, moving, Jackie is a stunning work of narrative depth and technical wonder that blows the concept of what biopics can and should accomplish wide open.

Framed as an interview between Jackie and an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup), Jackie takes nonlinear jumps from her A Tour of the White House to her husband’s burial. Like the remembrance of grief itself, the effect is jarring, presenting her story as a sort of associative poetry. Anyone who’s experienced immense grief can tell you that, in hindsight, the moments tend to get jumbled up in your recollection. The juxtaposition of moments presented here, which jump freely in time as Jackie recalls them, creates a similar effect, which works as a way to paint a hyper-effective emotional landscape.

In that sense, the narrative of Jackie is less important than the feelings it evokes, which then becomes the narrative. Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, whose previous writing efforts delved in adaptations of young adult dystopian novels like The Maze Runner and Allegiant, displays a stunning maturity in his writing, which captures not only the mood of the era, but the mannerisms of the players, near perfectly.

When added with Larrain’s direction—itself reminiscent of the Chilean literary traditions of poet Pablo Neruda and post-modern novelist/poet Roberto Bolaño—Jackie becomes something like cinematic poetry. The non-linear, free associative structure allows for a subtlety of narrative to shine through perfectly. Jackie’s personal grief is made all the more palpable when presented beside images of political mourning; her strength made stronger presented next to scenes of her franticly trying to wash blood off her face.

This juxtaposition plays well into the myths surrounding Jackie herself. Here was a woman all too aware of what the public expected of her, which often didn’t jive with who she really was. She controlled her image with great care, which is depicted well here in moments both large and small. There’s a calculated coldness in the way she gently states, “I don’t smoke,” from behind a cloud she exhaled just a breath before. There’s a kind of power in the way she challenged Crudup’s journalist to say otherwise here. Her wall of celebrity was perfect for her to hide behind as much as it was for to peak around.

Moments like this—again, punctuated and juxtaposed by moments of raw grief and fury—present a fascinating portrait a woman we know only from our perceptions. Oppenheim and Larrain do wonders at exploring the how keenly aware Jackie was at the myths that surrounded her, and how she was all at once oppressed and emboldened by the perceptions and expectations thrust upon her.

The pressures on Portman here are incredible. One misstep and the entirety of the film crumbles around her. But Portman is an actress of immeasurable skill and talent. She carries the film like Atlas, unflinching in her portrayal and unrelenting in her commitment. Often I lost sight of the fact that I was watching Portman, losing myself completely in the fantasy that this was actually Jackie. From her accent to her demeanor, Portman is perfection. Even her eyes, from moment to moment, alternated between the emotions that roiled through her as she faced the reality of burying her husband after losing him in so tragic a manner.

She’s bolstered by a slew of supporting performances, from Crudup’s journalist, who embodies the guilt of the American consciousness as her attempts to rectify what Jackie the person is going through with what Jackie the symbol must present, to Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a shocked and beleaguered Bobby Kennedy. The always fantastic Greta Gerwig shines as White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman, who becomes the closest Jackie has to a real friend over the week that followed Kennedy’s assassination. If anyone besides Portman deserves an nod from the Academy, it’s Gerwig, whose body of work gets more impressive with each passing year.

Coming in at just 99 minutes, Jackie packs a powerful punch in such a short span of time. It’s taut frame serves to land its hits harder than they might’ve in a more traditional biopic, but, then again, this isn’t really a biopic. It feels like one, sure, given its subject matter. But this is more a slice of life that happens to be a bio. As a slice of life, it’s one of the most poignant and affecting cinematic portrayals of grief ever presented. That it gives us insight into a woman steeped in American mythmaking is merely bonus.

From top to bottom, Jackie is near perfection. It’s a stunning reminder of the power of cinema to enrapture and transform. Beautiful. Engrossing. Engaging. Heartbreaking. Jackie is all of these things. It’s also a powerful exploration of grief that ascends to the greatest of heights before ascending even further. To mix no words, Jackie is not only one of the best films this year, but one of the best films so far this decade.

Jackie is now playing in limited release, with wider release planned in the coming weeks.

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