The biographical films are coming, which could mean only one thing: Oscar season is upon us. Some call many of these features awards bait. With A-listers in the leading roles, it makes sense as to why the distributors are trying to push so many of these titles for Oscar consideration. After the negative publicity around Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation exploded, Fox Searchlight Pictures focused its sights on Pablo Larraín's Jackie as its new Oscar pony. While every element screams "give us awards!," it has certainly earned nominations, at the very least.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) must deal with the grief of her horrendous loss. When losing her husband and the title that gave her purpose, she begins to doubt her faith and must fight for her children's well-being. Meanwhile, Jackie does all that she can to define her husband's historic legacy for the country.
Writer Noah Oppenheim has decided to tell this story in a non-linear fashion, starting after the Kennedy family had left the White House after the assassination. She sits with a journalist, giving an official interview to speak with the American people about the Kennedy name, and herself. A very distinct decision is made to put a spotlight on the First Lady in a way that is critical and humanizing. She may have been a former President's wife, but Jackie still had her own personal demons and flaws, just like everybody else. While the First Lady herself would have never approved of this depiction, Oppenheim has crafted a deeply engaging character study filled with dialogue and character nuances that allow the film to feel as impactful as it does. The audience obviously knows how the major plot points play out, but its the character's journey that continues to surprise us as the picture unfolds.
As Jackie speaks with the journalist, the audience is transported to her televised tour through the White House and other events that ultimately led her to where she sits in this conversation. Much of the running time is spent with Jackie speaking with Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and various political names, as she tries to make a grand funeral procession that will be worthy of her husband's legacy. However, this is an issue of security and safety, as this was a truly delicate situation that had to be handled with extreme care. While her apparent certainty is occasionally brave, we're also exposed to her vanity. This makes for a conflicted character that is constantly struggling to keep her head above water. Jackie's insecurities are placed front and center when she speaks with a priest about her troubles and doubts about a god that would allow such terrible things to take place. While a couple of these scenes feel a bit too obvious, they still work into the overall context of the film.
There have been more film and TV specials on the JFK assassination than one could imagine, which makes one think, what could Jackie possibly add that we haven't already seen before? It adds a sense of humanity to the story that places its sights on the extreme grief that unfolded for Jackie. This is unusual for a biopic to focus on character, rather than plot in this fashion. Jackie never seeks to make us cry, but to establish a thought-provoking look at a woman that still seems mysterious, despite the many perspectives that audiences have seen on her. Even if you aren't quite as enchanted by the film's journey, there's no denying that this is no ordinary biopic, as it doesn't play by any of the rules that we've come to expect.
The centerpiece of Jackie is Natalie Portman's awe-inspiring performance that will certainly earn her some serious Oscar attention. She had a lot of high expectations to live up to in this performance, and she still manages to impress on every level. When watching this portrayal, it never feels as if we're watching Natalie Portman; it feels like the embodiment of the former First Lady. From the speech to the smallest of mannerisms, Portman has put a lot of work into making this one of the best performances of the year. Meanwhile, supporting actors Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, and Greta Gerwig all deliver in making this a cohesive drama with an impact.
Director Pablo Larraín has just placed himself as a director to watch, as he has crafted a biopic that feels eerily unique. Despite its subject matter, he visually portrays the film with horror influences. This character study makes an intriguing turn into a nightmare-turned-reality for Jackie, which improves upon a screenplay that already packs a punch by itself. This is accomplished in a series of extreme close-ups on Portman, as we're reminded that this film's goal isn't to recount the JFK assassination, but the grief that his wife went through afterwards. It's tremendously effective, as Larraín causes the audience to feel claustrophobic and trapped in her grief. The haunting score is sure to stick with audiences long after the credits are done rolling, as it reinforces all that has been mentioned above. Comparisons in tone will be made to Black Swan, although that shouldn't be too surprising, since Darren Aronofsky received a producer credit.
With The Maze Runner and Allegiant on his resume, it's a bit surprising to see writer Noah Oppenheim working on a piece about Jackie Kennedy. However, he has crafted a fascinating drama that breaks the formulaic Oscar bait mold that we've become accustomed to seeing every year. While it occasionally feels pretentious, that doesn't stop this biopic from being engaging from start to finish. This is a character study that turns what could have been a dry drama into an eerie narrative about grief and doubt. Meanwhile, Natalie Portman delivers an impeccable performance as Jackie Kennedy that just might earn her a second Academy Award win. Jackie is an unconventional biopic that breaks the Oscar bait mold. Highly recommended!
Jackie will be playing at AFI FEST 2016 presented by Audi on November 14th.