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Movie Review: #Jackie

Jackie is unconventional, uncompromising, and one of the best films of the year.

Review by Matt Cummings

Jackie is a masterful film. Starkly raw in its depiction of perhaps the worst single event since WWII, it's a remarkably poignant biopic that is largely non-traditional in its format or how it treats its subjects. Powered by an incredible performance from its lead, it vaults to the top of our Oscar choices behind expert camerawork and a sense that our current political machine is headed in the same terrible direction.

Still reeling over the loss of her husband John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), Jaqueline (Natalie Portman) has disappeared to the family's Hyannis Port home, ready to tell her side of the story to an unknown journalist (Billy Crudrup). Told from four different time periods, Jackie relates the horrific moments of the assassination, but orders The Journalist to carefully dictate her words so as assuage the concerns of Americans that she is no longer the regal First Lady. We see how the events affect brother Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), as he struggles to organize the funeral around security concerns that Jackie couldn't care less about. Filled with rage and determined to show Americans the horror behind her husband's murder, Jackie defiantly ignores warnings against her life to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in the biggest funeral procession since Abraham Lincoln. The decision will elevate Jackie's reputation and prove to be one of the most iconic moments in 20th Century history.

The brilliance behind Jackie lies in both its director and its lead. This is the first time many of us will hear of Director Pablo Larrain, as Jackie represents his first English-language film. At first, we're unsure where Larrain is going, presenting four separate storylines that take until the second act to coalesce. But when it locks in, Jackie is almost uncontrollably emotional for the audience, as we watch the First Lady clean her husband's blood from her face (missing an entire section in the midst of her grief), before watching Johnson take the oath on Air Force One. It's a truly powerful moment that Larrain uses in different ways throughout the film to depict the power of loss. We grieve with Jackie, in a way that perhaps we did when the assassination first happened. But we also see the careful political machine in play when she's interviewed for CBS News in 1962 for the restoration of The White House. Larrain masterfully splices real footage with Portman standing in looking (and sounding) very Jackie.

Jackie is very much in your face, unapologetic in its depiction of what happens when those in charge of crafting the national message undergo unimaginable change. Part of that sell is due to the Oscar-worthy performance of Portman. When we first see Jackie, she's alone in her home with no servants to answer the door, the loneliness amplified by her still-stately aura. But soon it's off to the races as she informs Crudrup that this interview will be edited, even going so far as to amend her words in one of the film's final scenes. Here, Portman elegantly switches to Information Control Officer, before returning to the grieving wife who relays her recollection of the assassination itself. Portman never shies away from any of these moments, delivering a powerful message of a woman bounded by duty who - in her words - married the wrong man. Had she married a plain, ugly man she tells The Journalist, she would never had to share this grief. Fifty years later, that's still hard to hear but Portman delivers it in a finishing-school way that makes you empathize and respect her reasons for saying it. Larrain gives Portman room to maneuver her character, and she brilliantly delivers in every scene. In fact, I don't think there are any scenes without her in it, which could have gone the other way if her performance had been disappointing. Not here: Portman is an easy lock for an Oscar nom, as should Larrain.

Jackie is also a gorgeous-looking experience. Production Designer Jean Rabasse and Costume DesignerMadeleine Fontaine return us to the 1960's, gifting Jackie with a remarkable wardrobe and returning The White House to the days of Camelot. Larrain uses a mix of 16mm and other large-scale traditional film cameras to get up close to the actors, and even goes so far to actually show us the assassination. That might be too much for some, but as Jackie says to Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), "I want them to see what they've done to Jack." That's a shock to the audience, as Jackie matures from what many considered a lightweight socialite into a hardened political, all made possible by Larrain's expert camerawork, courtesy of Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine. That plays out magnificently during the swearing-in process aboard Air Force One; Jackie's in a fog here, drifting in and out of the moment and still wearing the blood-stained dress, before being almost pushed aside once Johnson takes over. And notice Phillpson, whose dead-on looks should keep him in the green to play Kennedy from now on.

Jackie's supporting cast is also top shelf, including Interior Decorator Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant), Ladybird Johnson (Beth Grant), and Jackie's assistant (Greta Gerwig). Each have their place and make the most of their moments, especially Sarsgaard. As Bobby, we see the pained expression of a man who is next on the hit list, a devastated brother who's also trying desperately to ensure that Jack's unfinished legacy isn't forgotten. Sarsgaard dresses down President Johnson, begging him to sit down after news of Oswald's assassination is displayed on the television, a moment that shows just how tenuous the moment still is for Bobby. You can see the rage on his face as he and Jackie walk down Pennsylvania Avenue towards Arlington, speaking loads without saying a word. That's the mark of great filmmaking, perfectly executed. Add a haunting score by Composer Mica Levi (who crafted the amazing Under the Skin) and you have the makings of a non-traditional and incredible film.

If there's one issue with Jackie, is that it doesn't know where to finish, which might leave some to wonder if 99 minutes was too long. I was concerned that such a short runtime wouldn't be long enough to tell this story, but it's almost too long. Still, it's likely that you'll probably leave the theater just as devastated, because Larrain makes this seminal moment in our nation's history so powerful.

Starkly unconventional from the traditional biopic, Jackie is a beautiful triumph that reminds us that political tragedy also carries with it a personal price for those at its center. It vaults to the top of our Oscar list, revealing a person of limitless complexity, whose legend was forged in an instant of grief and for whom the nation grieved with her like a loving mother.

Jackie is rated R for brief strong violence and some language and has a runtime of 99 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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