Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is a work of hypnotizing, unsentimental brilliance, a film so raw in its power that at times it’s a truly difficult watch. We all know what happened that day in November 1963, and we’ve seen the Zapruder film, and we’ve seen Oliver Stone’s JFK, and we’ve seen all the other feature films and documentaries made about one of the nation’s worst tragedies. It’s a moment in time that’s so overly familiar, even to someone like me who was born long after it happened. And yet director Lorrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim manage to take us back to that moment and the fraught-filled days afterward in a completely new and thought-provoking way. By giving us the story from Jackie Kennedy’s point of view, we see these horrific events in a whole new light.
The film does not have a typical narrative structure that opens with the assassination and leads us into the aftermath, or a structure that adds unnecessary tension by taking us through the many events of Jackie’s day before we get the assassination scene. There’s a little of that, Jackie putting on the classic pink outfit, her walking off the plane and waving to the people of Dallas, but the beauty of Jackie is ultimately its lack of and complete aversion to a typical structure. The film is an editing marvel, one that delicately and masterfully switches to different points in time, sometimes Jackie’s famous on-camera tour of the white house, sometimes the horrific minutes directly following the assassination, sometimes the brutally honest sit-down she had with a journalist a week after the tragedy. The movie constantly bounces around in time and in tones, and instead of it disorienting the viewer, it keeps bringing out more and more complexity to the Jackie character.
This is a film that lives or dies by its lead performance, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. With the wrong actress, with a lackluster actress, this material fails even before it gets going. Natalie Portman has been one of my favorites for a long time, and it’s always a thrill when she gets a great part on film. She won the Best Actress Oscar for her chilling and brave performance in the fantastic Black Swan, one of my three favorite films of 2010, but in the last few years I’ve noticed the lack of both quality and content in the films she’s appeared in. She was fine in the Thor movies, and I was happy to hear she wrote and directed a film (A Tale of Love and Darkness, which I still need to see), but for the most part it’s been a dry spell for Portman since her magnificent performance in Black Swan.
Well, the dry spell is over. Her performance as Jackie is a wonder to behold. She’s in nearly every frame of the film and she brings grace and energy and unfiltered emotion to her truly striking performance. At first it was hard to forget I was looking at Natalie Portman playing Jackie Kennedy. It does take a good ten or fifteen minutes for the full illusion to take shape. But when it does, and her voice and her gestures and her aura become Jackie’s, the movie takes off and stays compelling to the final scene. Portman makes Jackie Kennedy a three-dimensional human being, someone deeply devastated by the loss of her husband, which is expected, but she’s also at times difficult and unlikable, which was unexpected. A moment when she yells at Bobby Kennedy for keeping secrets from her is startling because it doesn’t show her in an angelic light, but these kind of vitriolic moments are necessary to paint her as a real person, one with ideas and disagreements for how her husband’s funeral service should be handled.
Beyond Portman’s incredible performance, I was also taken by the wondrous cinematography and haunting musical score, as well as the aforementioned skillful editing. The look of the film is absolutely gorgeous, the camera often tracking poor Jackie from room to room of the White House, John’s blood still on her clothes. From the darkness and smoke in the interview sections, to the brightness and lushness in happier times, to the way the film mixes real stock footage with the fictionalized dramatization, the cinematography by Stephane Fontaine is marvelous. I also loved the subtle but memorable score by Mica Levi, which never tells the viewer what to think and infuses the film with a sense of tension and sadness. And the editing by Sebastian Sepulveda is something special. This film could have played out with the exact same footage in a rudimentary way, the kind we’d come to expect, but the film is put together in such a manner that the narrative structure itself keeps me thinking about the finished film long since having watched it.
Jackie has strong supporting performances all around, from Peter Sarsgaard (in a Garden State reunion!) as Bobby Kennedy, an unrecognizable Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman, Billy Crudup as the Journalist, John Hurt as the Priest, and Caspar Phillipson, who looks almost identical to the real John F. Kennedy. Larrain has taken great care in all elements of this film, from his cast, to the cinematography, to the editing, to the music, and lots more, but the best choice he made was Natalie Portman. She is the reason the film works, and she is the reason that you should drop whatever you’re doing and go see this fine film.
Watching Like a Writer
When I think about Jackie in relation to my fiction, I think about how I would tackle writing about a real-life event that’s familiar, that everyone knows about, in a way that was different and looked at the event from a different side, a different point-of-view. Jackie works beautifully, but it also could have gone wrong in so many ways, sentimentalizing the event, or giving us the familiar, and especially in fiction, one needs to be careful when dealing with a tragedy everyone knows well and has strong feelings about.
Think about the JFK assassination specifically. What kind of story would you like to tell or would like to see told about that day that hasn’t yet been written?