The story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is one that has been told time and time again since it happened in November 1963 from documentaries to conspiracy thrillers to (somewhat surreally) Red Dwarf, so what more was there to say in the subject more than 50 years on?
Well judging by Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, quite a lot.
Taking the perspective of Jackie Kennedy, portrayed meticulously by Natalie Portman, it traces events through the medium of an interview with an anonymous journalist (Billy Crudup), from the First Couple’s arrival in Texas up until the president’s funeral. In focusing on this rather short period it allows a level of detail and intensity not usually seen in a conventional biopic which is very much a part of its strength.
This intensity is the film’s hallmark, shot with many more close-ups than you might expect, the grand vistas of such iconic locations as that stretch of road in Dallas, the White House, Arlington cemetery or others are almost entirely absent, making this far more personal than it might otherwise be.
Along with this shooting style, Portman’s performance is, of course, what the film hinges on and it comes with a rarely seen sense of precise deliberateness which gives the feeling, I think intended, of Jackie Kennedy as a hugely guarded person.
As the film goes on and the guardedness is maintained but navigated by both Larrain and the journalist, to reveal her grand ambition; to create what has become the legend surrounding the Kennedy ‘dynasty’. In the film’s one slightly heavy-handed moment this is expressed as a kind of ‘modern Camelot’.
While this performance and cinematic style very much help tell the story there are moments where it makes it feel too detached and unemotional. However when the emotion does comes out, such as the scenes of Kennedy’s arrival back at the White House after Dallas and those where she is alone with Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), we get a sense of the state of shock she is operating in, very much in the public eye and there is a very genuine and real sense to this without a hint of the potential melodrama it could easily lapse into.
The film contains its share of subtly shocking moments as well, that again never feel overplayed but are just present as, I can only imagine, they would be in reality, this is most graphically noticeable when you first see a long shot of Kennedy still wearing the same outfit as she was in Dallas, complete with blood stains.
With amazing period detail and some excellently used sound design, Larraín’s film comes together to be a very impressive work that explores a mythologised event in a way that is genuinely unmythologising and given the situation, surprisingly down to earth, but with an intensity and tension that most mainstream thrillers could but dream of, just in a rather different genre.