Throughout history, public leaders have been turned into mythic giants with infallible gifts. They lead their countries through hard times often at the risk of legacy-ruining scrutiny. While time has a habit of only enforcing this mindset more, it does feel important to remember the one truth: they were just humans. Never has that been more apparent in late 20th century American history than on November 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It's a moment that history won't let anyone forget, even as it's over 50 years old. Yet there's one side that's often overlooked that was there that day. His wife Jacqueline Kennedy was by his side, but whose story has rarely been given attention. Director Pablo Larrain's Jackie uses this construct to explore more universal themes with a script whose prose reads as a long essay on the grieving process. With poetic language and even more beautiful cinematography, the film sparks with life in one of the most original biopics to come out this past year.
While the film is largely about Jacqueline "Jackie" Kennedy (Natalie Portman), it does feel like a story relevant to anyone who has lost a loved one by sudden tragedy. There is no way to properly grasp what this means. There was a time when that loved one was an everyday occurrence; being equal parts loving and annoying in infectious ways. It's something that's taken for granted until that fateful day when tragedy strikes and the world is different. You feel alone, incapable of moving on without that little piece of support in your life. For Jackie, this means a variety of things, including how she will raise her young children and live a life as a widow of one of America's most notorious moments. As assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) kindly suggests, Jackie is still young - at that time one of the youngest First Ladies at 34 - and can find love again.
But it isn't that easy. While the film rarely alludes to Jackie and John's love life, it feels imminent why it would take some time. She has haunting flashbacks to that November day when she laid her husband's head in her lap trying to save his life. As she washed the blood off of her body, she was emotionally shattered and speechless. Even as she dressed up in the familiar pink outfit, there was a stain of blood on her cheek. It was a moment that wasn't going to go away any time soon, if ever. The film also uses later moments involving interviews with reporters and priests to serve as ventilation for her struggles. She questions her love, especially as a modest and quiet woman. Why did she marry a politician? Why was she the way she was? She felt that regret even as she was consoled. For every line of dialogue that Portman delivers, there feels like there's dozens more being held back through tears and shaking.
As much as the film is about handling the death in question, it also has a more optimistic and nostalgic mindset. With reenactments of director Franklin J. Schaffner's A Tour of the White House, the story shifts to Jackie's obsession with preserving American history. She discusses the furniture in a bashful tone as Nancy directs her from off screen; telling her to smile and look certain directions. There's even a poignant shout-out to Abraham Lincoln, whose physical appearance took a toll during his laborious time in office and can be seen specifically in his eyebrows. Larrain does a phenomenal job of creating Schaffner's original documentary with Portman often sharing an uncanny similarity to Jackie's physical presence and speech patterns. It comes through in how she tries to represent something greater than a nervous wife. Her emotions are controlled as she tries to remember history fondly.
Shifting these moments between the documentary and her current state of shambles is difficult to pull off. With that said, Larrain's work becomes impersonal to the Kennedy experience specifically. What he's more interested in is how best to remember the deceased. With countless lines specifying something akin to modern Greek mythology, Jackie does her best to picture the man that she knew well as a hero and not the flawed man she married. It's one with constant back and forth fights, but is perfectly depicted in an artful manner. After all, it is important to remember the dead without giving up on living. By the end of the film, Jackie has managed to make sense of her struggles, even if there's little chance that she will be able to look back without crying just a little.
As a technical feat, the film is a marvelous invention. The cinematography manages to feature countless striking shots; including the moments following the assassination and an even more haunting portrait of her crossing a graveyard to find the right burial spot. This film is lousy with touching photography, and it helps that Portman's performance is so convincing. With all of this said, composer Mica Levi's work is likely to go unnoticed but serves as one of the best scores for 2016. Her ability to blend classical elegance with a queasy discomfort perfectly captures the mindset that Jackie is going for. It's unnerving but also beautiful. Speaking as this is only Levi's second score following the equally innovative Under the Skin, she is a voice to look out for. One can only hope that this unorthodox score is seen as revolutionary as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' work on The Social Network in 2010. Awards season will let us know for sure.
Jackie is a powerful film and one that captures the emotional struggles of loss in a way both personal and universal. While it may only use the Kennedy story as a cypher for its themes, it does so with reverence and an elegance that is profound. It's a beautiful film in which Portman shines and gives another career best performance. One can only hope that this inspires other filmmakers to make other stories about the often overlooked First Ladies in American History. While this film isn't being birthed into the first female presidency, it at least is a reminder that behind every great president, there was a strong wife. Jackie may seem more like a trendsetter than an activist, but her influence shines through; even as she has to publicly grieve over her husband's death. It's a beautiful, artful film that paints a unique portrait of a familiar time in American history. By doing so, it explores the idea of legacy with an innovation not often seen on film.