By Diana Matthews
Awards season is officially upon us and like the rest of the pop culture junkies and movie fans, I was overjoyed to see La La Land, Fences and Moonlight (among many others) take home the top honors at the Golden Globes on January 8th.
But there’s one film that remains on the edges, nominated for the same awards but going relatively unnoticed amidst the other nominees.
Jackie, directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, stars Natalie Portman as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and tells the story of her experience in the days immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I saw Jackie in the afternoon of December 31st. The trailer hadn’t particularly fired me up to go but I’m a big fan of Natalie Portman and thought it would be an easy way to spend an otherwise snowy and sleepy afternoon. From the opening credits, I realized I was in for a far different movie-going experience.
When Portman came on the screen as Jackie, I immediately knew this wasn’t simply a biopic or dramatic portrayal of an infamous time in history; it was transcendent.
The story is told out of sequence and solely from Jackie’s point of view after her husband is assassinated. Scenes of Jackie in an interview are cut between the experiences she describes to the journalist.
But we’re also shown an intimate portrayal of the First Lady in a grief-stricken haze, taking drugs in her bedroom and walking around the White House, almost as a ghost who is haunting the halls of the home she must now leave.
Jacqueline Kennedy has been described as a PR genius, a woman who was far ahead of her time in her understanding of public image and mass communication. Given this context, it quickly becomes apparent that the audience is being shown both sides of Jackie, namely her public role as the First Lady who must now organize the funeral and vacate the White House, but also as a mother and widow, who had to scrub her husband’s blood off her face and tell her children why their dad won’t be coming home.
This type of portrayal calls for an actress who has the grit and ability to play her in a way that shows the depth of not only the public persona, but the person underneath. Darren Aronofsky, who directed Portman in Black Swan and came on as a producer for this film, agreed with Larrain that if they couldn’t get Portman for the lead, they wouldn’t make the film.
And it paid off.
Known for her gorgeous looks and style, Larrain filmed Portman as Jackie in close-ups and medium shots, showcasing her bird-like frame and stunning face. It seems like a risk to film an actress with such close framing, given she’s portraying one of the most recognizable and famous women in history. But it doesn’t take long before you start to forget you’re watching Portman and not Jackie herself.
The breathy voice, masterful hair and makeup and stick-straight posture aren’t a portrayal or imitation, they’re an embodiment. The way Portman carries herself onscreen suggests a profound understanding of the inner workings of the person she’s playing; she radically empathized her way into becoming Jackie.
Consumed with a sense of duty and obligation, Jacqueline Kennedy took it upon herself to organize the funeral march for John F. Kennedy, based on Abraham Lincoln’s, that would give the country a chance to say goodbye, but more importantly, to solidify his legacy in the world.
In a moment of crisis, we see Jackie embody the role she was elected into when her husband became president. In her pink suit, now soaked with her husband’s blood, she dutifully stands beside Lyndon B. Johnson as he takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One, hours after JFK was pronounced dead.
It’s an image we’ve all seen in countless history books and documentaries, but there was something so viscerally tragic about seeing it through Jackie’s eyes.
That’s what I loved most about Jackie. We’ve heard the stories, the conspiracies and the first-hand accounts of what that day in Dallas was like. But to see it through the First Lady is something completely different. The film isn’t about anyone but her and I had never before heard the story of what the woman behind the man did to protect an image she had built her entire life around.
Jackie’s fortitude, passion and loyalty to her family and country is a story I wish I had learned in history class. To know that she was the one who protected the integrity of JFK’s office when it was most threatened while supporting her child through a period of insurmountable grief goes far beyond the perfect, doll-like wife archetype I had grown up understanding her to be.
I wish Jacqueline Kennedy had been introduced as more than just a fashion idol and the wife of a president. Because she truly was so much more than that. This film provides beautiful and dark insight into the humanity of a woman who made tremendous personal sacrifice for something she believed in more than anything else.
And in the company of the other incredible women who are looking to change the narrative and showcase a different type of heroine, Natalie Portman stands alongside them as an icon unto herself.
Jackie is currently showing in theatres.