Everyone knows the story of JFK and that infamous morning in Dallas, whether you have the flashbulb memories of where you were when it happened or if you learned about it in your history classes. Even if you didn’t pay attention to your schoolwork, JFK’s demise has permeated into the fabric of pop culture and media. Conspiracy theories abound, there are countless movies, books, and TV shows about the event, it even leaks into unrelated media like Annie Hall, Watchmen, and The X-Files. So, why should we have yet another movie with the same subject matter? This film takes a different approach to the story: Jackie follows the life of Jackie Kennedy the week after the assassination of her husband.
Jackie is told as a collection of memories from Jackie (Natalie Portman) while she does an interview with Theodore White (Billy Crudup). This set up allows for a variety of scenes to be shown from before, while still maintaining the narrative story of the week after the assassination. The main plot of the film shows Jackie’s stages of anguish and mourning following the tragic event. While this perspective of the story is relatively untold in mainstream cinema and television, I can’t help but find it a little underwhelming. I’m glad to see Jackie’s experiences brought to light, but this is nothing that the average person wouldn’t expect to see happen after a horrible experience. We know that her husband was killed in front of her and we can only imagine the kind of trauma that would induce. Without watching a movie about it, I think most people can assume what kind of grief and heartbreak she went through. Jackie doesn’t provide anything more than what you’re expecting out of it: a heartbroken woman grieving in various ways and coming to terms with a life-altering travesty.
Jackie has a lot of great aspects to it, but what stands out is Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy. She completely embodies the role and sells it entirely, and thanks to the blending of film and actual footage, I rarely felt I was watching an imitation of Jackie Kennedy. It wouldn’t shock me in the least to see her nominated for Best Actress for this role. The supporting cast had very few standouts (minus Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy), but I can’t decide whether they didn’t fit the roles or if they simply paled in comparison to Natalie Portman’s dominating presence on screen. The only casting that broke my immersion during the movie was Caspar Phillipson as JFK. Despite having a very minor amount of screen time, I couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t really sell himself on being JFK. The only thing he showed in common with the beloved President was a passing, beer-goggles resemblance to him.
What shined nearly as bright as Portman during the film was the attention to detail. I’ll admit that very rarely does a film do well enough for details like set design and costuming to jump out and grab me, but Jackie does just that. As Jackie Kennedy walks through the White House in her bloodstained outfit, you’re completely immersed in this time. Each detail feels meticulously placed and it lends a tremendous weight to the film. The music truly sets a tone for the film, filling the audience with a sense of dread and sadness. With the strings in the orchestra walking the border between horror and tragedy, it places a somber shroud over the entire movie. Even coming back to listen to the soundtrack gives me goosebumps and makes me peek over my shoulder. At first, I almost thought Jackie would be a horror movie based on the soundtrack alone. But, as the story unfolds, the soundtrack becomes more in-depth and accompanies the plot. It’s rare to see such a perfect execution of a score to compliment a film.
My only problem with Jackie doesn’t have much to do with the film itself, but the purpose behind it and the reason for its creation. I always assumed I had heard everything there was to hear about the JFK assassination, never thinking of what Jackie Kennedy went through. But, after watching Jackie I didn’t feel that I had come to more fully understand the event. I didn’t even walk away pleased that I had seen a mostly unknown portion of the story. I left the theatre downtrodden, having seen one hundred minutes of a grieving widow being quickly removed and overshadowed. I could have told you that the First Lady was devastated after JFK’s assassination. Having seen Jackie, I certainly have a more comprehensive knowledge of that devastation, but I don’t feel in any way better having learned this. There is no resolution, redemption, or conclusion in Jackie, only an unfortunate tale that feels like a weight being placed on you while watching it.
I’m torn on how I feel about Jackie. On one hand, it is brilliantly executed and Natalie Portman shows an incredible amount of dedication to her role, carrying the entire film. On the other hand, I feel that I haven’t gained anything in watching it. Despite its fresh perspective on an iconic moment in history, I walked out of the theatre without any new appreciation for the actual event. It simply reinforced my existing knowledge of how awful JFK’s assassination was. Despite all of that, I can’t ignore the excellent performance by Portman and the technical prowess that Jackie is able to bring to the screen. No one will regret watching Jackie, but I don’t think many will ever return to watch Jackie again.