Good or bad, biopics are a form of public relations: a way of reinforcing, challenging or establishing the public perception of their subject. Rare is the biopic like Jackie that examines the creation of the same myth it propagates. In the wake of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the traditional cradle-to-grave biopic has been superseded by various innovations, from a narrower focus through non-linearity to all-out invention. But Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination stands out from the pack with its careful interrogation of how an icon became iconic.
It’s easy to imagine a more conventional take on the material: a sweeping story of Jack and Jackie’s courtship, of the heady rise to the White House and the challenges therein – from infidelity to communism – and the climax pretty well writes itself. As with many of its recent biopic forebears, Jackie instead opts to centre on its eponym’s reaction to her husband’s death. That reaction invites – and occasionally embraces – emotional histrionics, but Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is drawn to how his protagonist crafts her image, perfecting a performance of grief that assured her and her husband’s entry into the pantheon of American legend.
Not that said screenplay is especially subtle about this. The dialogue is littered with overt references to performance and legacy throughout, with lines like “I lost track, somewhere. What was real. What was performance.” (Perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much from a screenwriter who’s only previous work is on The Maze Runner and a Divergent sequel.) In less capable hands, Jackie might’ve come off as a sub-par mimicry of better prestige pictures, striving for meaning without achieving. Thankfully, three major factors elevate the film above its biopic peers.
First up, you’ve got the direction of Larraín, tapped for the project after producer Darren Aronofsky saw his recent film The Club. Jackie is the English-language debut for the Chilean director, but it’s very much of a piece with films like Tony Manero, No and his other biopic of 2016, Neruda in the way it weaves together myth, dream and allegory in a distinctly political setting. Larraín’s elusive, elliptical editing here recalls the oneiric atmosphere of the Buñuelian Neruda without replicating it; his camera idly stalks Jackie through the rooms of the White House as though searching for ghosts.
There’s a distance here, a sense that we’re watching a pantomime performance of a time we can’t really recreate. (The Brisbane media screening of the film inexplicably added subtitles for the hearing impaired partway through the film, which gave an astounding – if untentional – resonance when the question “What did the bullet sound like?” was immediately followed by the subtitle of GUNSHOTS.)
The film has a softness, too, a sense of cloudiness that evokes the former First Lady’s stunned headspace. This atmosphere, overlaid onto the bluntness of the script, have prompted many to champion the film as ‘high camp’. That’s not a reading that resonated for me, especially, but of course given that unintentionality is integral to successful camp, it’s not any interpretation I’d reject.
Undoubtedly, though, Portman’s performance reads as camp. It’s a kind of glorious failure, a precisely-conceived brand of bad acting that transcends its more questionable qualities – the breathy voice, the nervous smile, the awkward posture – to somehow achieve perfection. Much like Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, the overtness of the performance feels intentional.
Early on, we watch Portman recreate Jackie’s famous televised tour of the White House, and as she tries and fails to maintain a smile, it’s impossible to miss that we’re watching Portman perform as Jackie performing as the First Lady. She has a flintiness that I’ve never associated with the real-life Jackie, a simmering anger that suits the screenplay while undercutting her mimesis. Portman never lets us forget that we’re watching her act, but it’s the rare performance that warrants that kind of artificiality (though I wonder if Oscar voters will recognise this, or merely nominate her for the whole ‘mimicking a historical figure’ thing.)
Credit, too, must be given to her supporting cast, particularly Peter Sarsgaard as her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy. I’m mostly familiar with Sarsgaard for his irritability, his aura of a muffled explosion waiting to be unleashed – which makes him seem an odd choice for such a statesman-like character. But while that irritability is certainly present in the wake of JFK’s death, it feels like a slender flaw in an otherwise superlative politician, as though shards of grief and frustration are piercing his perfect persona.
That frustration is not purely personal; Bobby, too, aspires for the presidency, and recognises that his brother’s death represents a significant obstacle in achieving that goal. If Larraín and Portman are necessary to smooth over the script’s bluntness, then it’s real-world factors like these – largely unacknowledged in the dialogue themselves – that ensure Jackie’s success. While Oppenheim over-emphasises the level of performance and public relations underpinning Jackie’s quest to preserve her husband’s legacy, culminating in an elaborate funeral procession, he thankfully underplays the motivations behind it, whether centred on ego, money or political ambition. Even the obligatory mentions of JFK’s infidelities are handled with unexpected subtlety.
Perhaps audiences somehow unfamiliar with the context surrounding the film’s events might be underwhelmed, but with only a skerrick of historical literacy even the smallest gestures are granted meaning. Which is, of course, what the film is all about. The way that legends are created and sustained by carefully-considered gestures: the right dress, the right words, the right funeral.