“History is written by the victors.” A phrase that will forever be associated with the course of history books – as well as the subsequent re-imaging of many history books. It is not, however, a quote that exists as it was originally iterated. Not the victor, no. Instead, the quote, as originated in October 1931’s issue of Social Forces reads; “history is written by the survivors.” It’s not a matter of victory and it never was. True victory rests on a personal stage, while the intensely debated politics of the world rests far from the conflicts within our own hearts. Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s newest film, Jackie, examines history as a battleground between the personal and the universal, forever engaged in the conflict between living our lives as we feel and the necessity of cementing ourselves amongst the broad sweep of history.
In the film’s opening scene, a journalist enters Mrs. Kennedy’s home weeks after her husband's death in order to conduct a tell-all interview. “How would you like to be remembered?” he asks. Larraín is concerned with exactly this: the object of remembrance. As such, Jackie has been described by more than a few critics as a ghost story and it’s a very apt comparison. The camera glides through the White House, past and present are weaved in a discombobulating manner and Mica Levi’s unbelievably brilliant score give the film a disturbing and unnerving air. It is populated by figures long gone – from John F. Kennedy himself to the two Kennedy children who died in infancy, to the looming spectre of Bobby Kennedy’s death. Even Jackie herself would pass at a relatively early age. It is a ghost story much like The Sixth Sense is. Jackie isn’t scary but, rather, mournful and elegiac. Both films are concerned with jobs left undone, actions unfinished and lives left in upheaval by the grieving process.
The talking point of Jackie has, of course, been the terrific performance by Natalie Portman as the titular First Lady. It is a wonderful performance, embodied in caricature at first, thanks to a spot-on impersonation of Mrs. Kennedy’s voice, before unveiling itself as emotionally fine-tuned, truthful and humane in the purest sense. Although the performance is one of the very best of the year, it is merely a piece of the larger tapestry of the film and the cast as a whole. Billy Crudup’s portrayal of a journalist prying personal details away from the newly widowed figure, John Hurt’s empathetic and brutally honest priest as well as Greta Gerwig’s (always) warm presence are just as important to the film and stand out just as much as Portman’s role. Less of a performance but also impressive is just how uncanny the resemblance between John F. Kennedy and actor Caspar Phillipson is. - aside from his height, Phillipson is an absolute dead ringer.
Too often, biopics succumb to their subjects but that is not the case with Jackie. Occasionally presumptuous and admittedly vain, Portman’s Jackie often believes that these events are more about her, the grieving widow, than anyone else. Her pride holds her back in the recovery process and strains her past the limits of what one person can take. Larraín’s film acknowledges the brilliance of Jackie Kennedy but does not make the mistake of painting the film solely around her. Jackie is a high-wire act that balances emotionally blunt and personal musings with the immensity of the world. “I should have guessed it was too much to ask that we grow old together” Jackie muses at one point. It is not a bitter statement but, rather, a peaceful realisation, freed from the constraints of vanity and self-hagiography.
Larraín shoots Jackie as if it were an interdisciplinary combination of many different types of film, much like he did with No (2012). There are splices of archival footage, including a 1962 tour of the White House, as well as thick, grainy recreations of famous events, searing and unstable conversations and pure, confrontational close-ups. It’s almost a gradual procession of shots – from the macro, greater view of history to the intensely personal, unflinching examinations of that which history cannot capture. As Mrs. Kennedy stands in front of a mirror, tears streaming down her face and wiping her husband's blood off of her face, Larraín holds. We are uncomfortable. It feels invasive, even more so than the searing, widely viewed, images of her on the back of the limousine, collecting pieces of her husband’s skull. More than anything else, this moment humanises a history that, perhaps, has become too much of a myth over the years. In the words of Bill Walton, “People need their history. It gives them strength. They need to know that real [people] actually lived here. Not ghosts and storybook legends.”
Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay nests itself in three different layers, with each of these layers clarifying as the film progresses and proceeding to blend with one another. It’s a brilliant trick although the film occasionally falters with dialogue that becomes far too on-the-nose given the ambiguous nature of the material. By the time the final montages kick in – set to Mica Levi’s swelling score – Jackie reaches a peaking crescendo. The opaque subject of, and the boldness of legacy meet and clash in an emotional gut punch that pushes Jackie beyond the conventional biopic as well as beyond the simple experiment that it could be described as. It’s a film with its eye on something very particular and, thanks to Larraín’s sure hand, Jackie pulls it off.