(Image courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)

52nd Chicago International Film Festival Special Presentation


I have only used the word "mesmerizing" on this website in three reviews in six-and-a-half years.  Those instances were to describe the performances of Michael Shannon in "Midnight Special," Tom Hardy in "Lawless," and Ryan Gosling in "The Place Beyond the Pines." In Chilean director Pablo Larrain's film "Jackie," I have found the next moment to say "mesmerizing" and I could use it in every sentence of what follows.

The adjective describes the film as a whole and its incomparable lead performance from Academy Award winner Natalie Portman playing First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate hours and days following her husband's 1963 assassination.  Far from a biopic and more of a psychological examination, Portman and Larrain sear the screen with emotion and imagery that is as captivating as it is difficult.  It is astonishing that it takes a foreign director to create the most empowering portrait of American history put to film in years.

“Jackie” reveals its discourse at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts through Mrs. Kennedy’s interview meeting with an unnamed reporter (Billy Crudup), one that  compositely mirrors LIFE magazine journalist Theodore H. White and his exclusive piece published mere weeks after the assassination.  Intersecting his inquiries are their shared recollections of the famed 1962 Valentine’s Day TV special, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” recreated shot-for-shot and line-for-line in the film.  The journalist puts the Kennedy legacy in perspective while hearing her shaken personal testimonial.

Her envisioned recollections paint a picture of losing her husband (Casper Phillipson) two days before their son John, Jr. would turn three and four days before their daughter Caroline would turn six.  We see the shielding of her brother-in-law U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), the unending support of her trusted personal assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and the calming faith of the family priest (John Hurt).  Her cycle of grief is juxtaposed with the tense transition to new President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and the security precautions media relations head Jack Valenti (Max Casella) assigns to the risk of holding a public and desired State Funeral procession.

Natalie Portman steps into playing the one of the most known, revered, idolized, and sympathetic women of the 20th century.  As Larrain will attest, her casting was about matching mystery.  Adorned in Madeline Fontaine’s exquisite costumes, Portman fashions one of the most impressive film depictions of a historical figure in years.  

The equal measures of pain and composure in her understated eyes and expressions speak volumes.  The range of differences in watching Natalie put on her guise in public settings, moments of tragedy and joy, the front of media appearances, as a mother and wife in family situations, and solitary private moments to her own devices. The next layer is watching those around her either gravitate, intersect, or full-on collide with her energy and vigor, from Hurt, Saarsgard, Gerwig, Crudup, and more.  The subtleties of those changes, personas, and faces is masterful.  She exudes all of the grace and poise one would expect of the icon that has become Jackie Kennedy.  Oscar may very well be calling her name for a second time this coming February.

Larrain fosters many calculated performances that add depth behind its sterling lead.  The nuances pile high among Crudup’s selective questions and answers, Gerwig’s reassuring hand on a shoulder, the despair in Sarsgaard’s voice, Hurt’s preachings of temperance, and all the sips of alcohol and drags of cigarettes.  The dialogue and staging in-between by screenwriter Noah Oppenheim are a tremendous step up in class from his young adult fare of “Allegiant” and “The Maze Runner.”  

Constructed with a budget a third of the size of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Larrain’s fantastic reimagined dimensions of history compose an operatic and mournful pageantry.  Talented and opulent artistry permeates every filmmaking facet of “Jackie.”  The first element that will jump into your senses is Mica Levi’s haunting musical score.  It swells like a twisted nerve of deep-stringed sorrow colliding with fluted and feminine elegance, tinged ever so slightly with a patriotic snare drum.  Breaking Levi’s aural fog are flights of fancy reminisced by the original cast recordings of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s numbers from the 1960 Broadway hit “Camelot,” a literal and metaphorical personal favorite of JFK himself.  

The visual flourishes merge brilliantly with the sounds.  Stephane Fontaine’s intimate and luminous cinematography never shies away from a necessary close-up while confidently pulling back for impactful scope.  With interiors shot in France, Jean Rabasse’s production design and Halina Gebarowicz’s art direction purvey perfect period detail on every wall.  Not a morsel of this movie is visually lackluster.

“Jackie” combines the iconic public memoirs with conceived private moments we didn’t see.  Simple things we couldn’t imagine, like removing bloodied clothes and telling children their father isn’t coming home, carry a crushing resonance under these psychological and historic circumstances.  “Jackie” is the first English language film and the first female protagonist for Pablo Larrain, a filmmaker whose works have been called provocative, endearing, political, and surprising.  All of those adjectives apply to “Jackie” and then some.

LESSON #1: THE POISE TO BE FOUND IN GRIEF-- Imagine your worst personal tragedy put on display for all of the world to see.  The public celebrated the dignity of Jackie Kennedy in face of her horrible loss, which had to be no easy feat.  The closed door events of the film show the roots of that historic poise being challenged first and then ultimately strengthened by the doubts and burdens of real grief born out of unimaginable tragedy.

LESSON #2: THE FACETS OF A WOMAN’S LEGACY-- The first word associations that are likely mentioned when talking about Jacqueline Kennedy are her poise and personal style.  Those qualities will be long-remembered, but what lived behind the public facade of the former First Lady was her legacy as a wife and a mother.  She was staunchly determined to do right by her children’s future and her husband’s memory.

LESSON #3: UNFINISHED HISTORICAL LEGACIES-- Bigger than Jackie herself was indeed her husband’s incomplete Presidency.  Assuming the role of the first caretaker to JFK’s legacy, she was disappointed by the shortness of his time and questioned how history would choose to remember him.  To her, their time matched the “one brief shining moment” and “fleeting wisp of glory” echoed from the lyrics of the Broadway musical.  Even she could not foresee the staying power of reverence that would follow the Kennedy legend as “American royalty,” one fatefully labeled and compared to Arthurian Camelot.