Watched the day after Trump’s inauguration. Someone has been quite smart with their distribution strategy for Jackie, as the cinema was packed, not a spare seat to be had. Perhaps not the kind of reception Larraín is accustomed to in this country. Many will discover him for the first time through Jackie. He delivers with exemplary independence. This is a forthright portrayal of a North American heroine, chiseled in unconventional style. The film’s primary brief is to humanise the political gods. Where the standard biopic too often gets trapped in exposition and wonky re-enactment, Larrain delivers a fractured portrait of a woman whose strength and vulnerability appear to go hand in hand. At the same time, the film echoes her mission to make the White House more accessible. Larraín and Oppenheim’s Jackie is versed in the history of the house and its presidents. She realises that she and her husband now form part of that history and its traditions. (“For tradition you need time.”) The first lady is given a deeper understanding than the men who exercise power, an understanding that comes to her aid as she struggles to come to terms with her grief. It is also an understanding the film communicates to its audience. At this particular historical moment, a supremely timely understanding.
The history of the US and Larrain’s home country is notoriously complex. Even in so far as his family is concerned. (Pablo was born into the Larraín family just as Jackie was incorporated into the Kennedy family: he understands dynasties and history.) Yet, in a way, this would appear to have made him an ideal biographer for the outsider subject. He’s in no way overawed by the subject matter; rather he seeks to contextualise it. This film has a lot in common with his sly masterpiece, Post Mortem, in that regard. Larraín looks at the other side of the historical coin; what it’s like to find yourself caught up in the vortex of terrible times. Larraín is aided by a script which just manages to stay on the right side of pretentiousness, but it’s the mercurial, everyday camera work and the elegant use of music, along with the supple editing which mark the film out. Not to mention Portman’s bravura performance. There’s one set-piece shot, when the camera looks down from the sentinel position on Kennedy’s coffin as it reaches the Capitol, which shows you what this film could have become. An exercise in the grandiose and faux-stateliness. Instead, Jackie is a film which, almost against the odds, succeeds in being both humane and wise. History belongs not just to those who exercise power, but to those who are caught up in its wake. Which is all of us.