Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat may be the most famous outfit in recent history. It’s almost like the Coke logo or Marilyn Monroe’s face — a quintessentially American image burned into collective memory. Like many symbols of classic Americana, it was gruesomely distorted. After her husband was shot, Jackie refused to clean the blood off her perfect pink suit, and reportedly regretted washing it off her face and hands. “I want them to see what they’ve done to Jack,” she said.
This is where “Jackie” begins. Directed by Pablo Larraín (“Neruda”) and starring Natalie Portman (“A Tale of Love and Darkness”), the film is an exploration of the First Lady’s reaction and response to her husband’s assassination. “Jackie” is the latest in the recent trend of biopics such as “The Social Network,” “Lincoln,” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” that turn historical figures into traditional fictional characters rather than merely pointing to the significant moments of their lives.
There are two Jacqueline Kennedys in “Jackie.” There’s the poised and regal woman who painstakingly redecorated the White House and was a style icon to millions. Then there’s the Jackie behind the camera, who speaks in a register about an octave lower than the first: tough, determined and made of absolute steel. It’s the second Jackie the audience sees for a majority of the film. We follow her as she arranges the funeral and moves out of the White House, all while confronting the hungry press, the all-too-eager Lyndon Johnson and the task of determining how her husband will be remembered.
The film is a deeply personal one. Tight close-up shots and shaky camera work dominate as the audience is given entry into some of the most intimate moments of Jackie’s life. This allows Natalie Portman’s performance to shine as it takes center stage, but unfortunately relegates all the other characters and conflicts to the background. The movie is hyper-focused on Jackie, both figuratively in terms of its story, and literally. She is in every scene, and the camera follows her closely. The effect is unsettling, but maybe not in the way the filmmakers intended.
“Jackie” was clearly meant to be an intensely affecting film. We’re thrown into the psychology of this very interesting person in order to see the world the way she saw it during that awful week following the assassination. All of the elements are technically in place for the audience to be fully absorbed and ready to empathize with Jackie. The score by Mica Levi (“Under the Skin”) is hypnotic, Portman’s performance is subtle but powerful, and the camera work is intimate, to say the least. And yet, none of this comes together.
The story just isn’t quite functional, meaning that none of the rules of drama that would make it actually resonate are put into place. None of the choices the character makes are contingent on each other. Plot elements just sort of happen, with no build or release of tension. Instead of being a story built on cause and effect, it’s a story based off of the principle of “and now this is happening.” And that’s just no way to invest viewers in a narrative. It doesn’t matter how pretty the score or how perfect Portman’s accent. It also doesn’t matter that most of the plot points of the film happened in real life. We need actual character motivation and good dramatic storytelling to register emotionally what is happening.
“Jackie” looks great. Its period setting is visually perfect, the score is unnerving, it’s filmed in a seemingly artful way and the acting is high quality. But underneath the glossy surface, it's a hollow shell of a story. The real Jacqueline Kennedy, both the public and private versions, deserved far better than this. She too had a pretty surface that looked nice on camera. Unlike her biopic, however, the real Kennedy had depth, intention and layers. For this, Jacqueline Kennedy’s legacy will endure. “Jackie” will be lucky if it makes it past the next Oscar season.