by Karen Han
There’s a moment in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, in which Jackie and Robert (Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard) talk about the Kennedy legacy. She says they’ll be remembered as “the beautiful people,” and to an extent, she’s right. From the Camelot motif, to the notion of the city upon a hill, to the proclamation that we’d put a man on the moon, the Kennedy legacy is romanticized, despite the way that it ended. Even the Zapruder film–the video of a private citizen that captures JFK’s assassination—possesses a sort of mythic quality and Lincoln’s death is perhaps the only other assassination that has stuck so permanently in the public consciousness. Jackie possesses the same inimitable beauty as the Kennedys’ public image and — as contrary as it might sound — elevates it to the point of making it human. It’s tangible.
The film is beautiful, its colors bright and saturated, and the score (by Mica Levi) is intoxicating, with the musical, Camelot, serving as the cherry on top. But both dissolve, or rather, serve to further jar the viewer when that same beauty is used to frame horror and grief.
The film constantly travels in time, and so does the camera, though Jackie is always its focal point. We watch “Jackie the First Lady,” as performed by “Jackie the woman” as performed by Natalie Portman. Watching those layers shift and change isn’t distracting so much as it is immersing. A lot of politics is performance, but more to the point, so is a lot of the aftermath of grief. We’re watching a personal tragedy, as well as a national one, and the near-impassibility of their intersection.
We come to Jackie from a place of familiarity with the Kennedy legacy. As Jackie takes individual moments and traumas and constructs them into something bigger, we watch that bigger picture being taken apart. Similarly, Jackie itself is a construction whose individual parts are stunning. The performances are wonderful, as are the cinematography and the music. However, the whole falls a little short of that. The film doesn’t dig quite deep enough into the ideas about Jackie that it presents (namely, the slyer and coyer aspects of her manipulation of the Kennedy legacy). However, this slight ambiguity makes it clearer that we are watching a movie about a woman who was known for being and ultimately is unknowable.