"I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy."
Most biopics are bound and determined to maintain an aesthetic distance between the audience and subject. Keeping legends at arm's length helps to maintain their legend, or so the prevailing wisdom seemed. Pablo Larraín's devastating film "Jackie" bucks conventional wisdom and offers a painfully intimate window into the most chaotic month in the life of former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Anchored by a mannered and brilliant performance by Natalie Portman in the title role, "Jackie" is made with a ninja-like precision that brings you up close and inside the pain and chaos of the days and weeks following the assassination of her husband. Portman's performance is so well studied, in fact, that it's jarring and takes some getting used to, especially on first viewing. The pains that Portman took to emulate Jackie's speech pattern and socialite poise pay off enormously, particularly because they are so foreign to modern audiences. It forces the viewer to lean in and really pay attention to mine the full wealth of this film.
Lest you think that "Jackie" is a one-woman show, the film wouldn't be half as successful without its incredible supporting cast. Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, and particularly the late, great John Hurt all add a tremendous amount to the film, fleshing it out and making it achingly real. The only misstep among the main cast is the usually terrific Peter Sarsgaard who underplays his role as Bobby Kennedy to such a degree that one might be forgiven for assuming he's phoning it in. He only occasionally makes an effort to sound like the former Attorney General, which makes his performance stick out like a sore thumb in an otherwise presentational piece of work. In point of fact, though, a performance like his would probably go unnoticed were nearly every other performance not so theatrically inclined.
The most important aspect of "Jackie" is showing the late Mrs. Kennedy's stubborn refusal to allow her husband's legacy to be defined by his death. The birth of the Camelot legend via her interview with Life Magazine is at the centerpiece of the film, and shows just how hard she fought to ensure that the legend was printed in the first place. It also places a huge emphasis on just how much work Jackie had to do in order to maintain her quiet grace and dignity throughout that entire time. Noah Oppenheim's sparsely brilliant screenplay gives just enough dialogue to convey those notions without beating the audience over the head with the themes.
Strangely enough, the film deliberately wants President Kennedy to remain at a distance, preferring to keep him part of the myth the film is taking pains to craft. As played by Danish actor Caspar Phillipson, who is a dead ringer for the late President, he remains elusive throughout the film, hovering over it like a specter. When he does show up in the film's many flashbacks, he's almost always seen from a distance, or partially in frame, making sure that the man stays in the background so the legend his wife is creating can flourish.
"Jackie" is an absolute wonder to behold. From Pablo Larraín's amazingly intimate directorial style to Mica Levi's haunting and spellbinding score to, especially, Portman's absolutely incredible lead performance, it's one of those films where everything just clicks. Frankly, any variation on the biopic formula is a welcome distraction, but Larraín's willingness to burn the formula to the ground is what makes this film so revolutionary. "Jackie" will linger with you long after it's over, but such is the myth of legends.