There are few things more deflating than the prospect of yet another Great Man biopic, a genre that's prone to cause even the best directors to stumble. The resulting films are often too rambling, too unfocused, too unnecessary—either misguided passion projects or empty stabs at “respectability.” In that respect, Jackie (Chilean director Pablo Larraín's second foray into biopic territory this year, after Neruda) sets itself apart. Centering on Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) and largely confining its focus to the hours and days following her husband’s assassination in 1963, it’s less a biopic and more an intimate refraction of a national tragedy. And although somewhat uneven, it remains an intriguing, if frustrating affair—both a plunge into history and myth and a look at its creation, the manner by which “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot” became embedded into a national consciousness.
Opening at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts a few days after JFK’s funeral, the film frames its fragmented narrative with an interview the (former) First Lady gave to Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), the reporter who would go on to write “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue” in LIFE magazine. From there, the film repeatedly flashes back to the immediate and extended aftermath of the assassination, the reverberations of the tragedy and the woman at the center of it. Mica Levi’s (Under the Skin) discordant score recurs throughout, lending the film's wordless interludes a hypnotic air—a lateral tracking shot of a child by a coffin, a fog-shrouded view of endless rows of gravestones. The script by Noah Oppenheim (whose resume curiously includes The Maze Runner and Allegiant) interlaces Jackie's political negotiations—where she's often accompanied by her chief aide, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard)—with more intimate moments with her extended family and two children.
Those are potent elements with which to build a film, and to be sure, Jackie is not without ideas. White's publication of the “Camelot documents” (his handwritten notes of the 1963 interview) as well as the extent to which the First Lady was responsible for shaping her husband’s legacy, provide ample intrigue. And at the very least, the film is perceptive about the importance of symbolic, ceremonial objects and spaces, here shown to be under Jackie’s purview, but which her husband dismissed as “vanity projects.” (Hence, the appreciable runtime devoted to scenes of Jackie filming what would become A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, an hour-long TV special prompted by the renovations that went on under her supervision.)
Unfortunately, Jackie's cavalcade of portentous scenes and somewhat turgid dialogue begins to feel like a swirl of “meaningful” signifiers, as opposed to a trenchant exploration of its underlying ideas. Despite its ostensible intimacy of perspective, it traffics in suggestive generalities (of both theme and character) rather than tangible specifics. (The scenes with John Hurt's Catholic priest—which are nothing if not generally meaningful—are particularly egregious in that regard.) Part of the problem is that the film relies so heavily on Natalie Portman’s lead performance, which strains for verisimilitude to a distracting degree. Given the (literally) performative nature of the role, that's not necessarily a deal-breaker. (“I lost track somewhere… what was real, what was performance.”) But it's also the kind of role that requires a more accomplished context in which to resonate, and Jackie’s greater, more crippling issue is a pervading lack of tension—dramatic, ideological or otherwise. The ideas are there, but because the film is content to illustrate (rather than contrast or explore) the First Lady’s perspective, its thematic heft only rarely goes beyond its striking staging. Whatever interest that does exist hinges on the scenes at Hyannis Port, and even those lean far too heavily on thematic generalities and Portman’s passive-aggression.
That’s not to say that Larraín is an untalented filmmaker. This year alone, he proved up to the task of delivering an unconventional (anti-)biopic with Neruda, a film that follows the period in 1948 when the eponymous Chilean poet (Luis Gnecco) was declared any enemy of the state. Like Jackie, the film is a deconstruction of myth, history and its writing, but characterized by wry self-reflexiveness as opposed to straightforward drama. Depicting the period as a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase between Neruda and police prefect Oscar Pelochonneau (Gael García Bernal, playing an entirely made-up character), Larraín pushes his stylistic artifice to a breaking point with rear projection, incessant voiceover and deliberately murky compositions of light, lens-flare and shadow. It plays on the disjunction between the film's text and García Bernal’s brilliantly self-effacing lead performance. (“Am I fiction?” he asks Neruda’s wife at one point.) And although Neruda is necessarily lacking in any sort of dramatic or political heft, it's buoyed by a streak of ironic, knowing humor that's seems uniquely Larraín's. In the weightier context of Jackie, however, he seems prone to falter, so the film's drama shades into posed ponderousness. One of Jackie’s centerpiece scenes sees Portman parading through various rooms of the White House in a series of dresses—a swirl of cigarette smoke and alcohol, with “Camelot” playing in the background. It suggests both a fevered fantasia and a grief-stricken immersion, but it’s too noncommittal to be both, and too strenuously symbolic to even fully be either.
And yet, for every element in Jackie that's obvious and overplayed, there are stray, marginal details that manage to resonate, moments during which the pretense falls away and its amorphous stew of ideas finally coalesce. A particularly striking moment does little more than pull back the camera to reveal just how much blood is on the First Lady’s (now-iconic) pink Chanel dress, Portman’s visage finally faltering within the emptiness of the White House, her line (“I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”) echoing in memory. It’s a hint of what might have been, an instant during which the relentless scene-staging and labored posturing gives way to something more, impressing with details that linger long after the dramatic particulars have faded—the ringing of a gunshot, a car detail speeding along a Dallas highway, or the flutter of a black veil caught in the wind.