USA Chile France (99 mi) 2016 Official site
Don’t let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
—Camelot, sung by Richard Burton, words and music by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederik Loewe, 1960, "Camelot" w/ Richard Burton - YouTube (2:31)
While Pablo Larraín has been a lauded and perhaps overrated filmmaker, where his two recent films No (2011) and The Club (El Club) (2015) have been controversial and provocative, yet they have failed to deliver on the artistic promise expected from critically acclaimed filmmaking, where one questioned whether greatness lies within him. Surprisingly, and perhaps uniquely, this ruminating biopic on Jackie Kennedy in the four days following the assassination of her husband in November 1963 is a superb piece of filmmaking, among the better films seen all year, the director’s first venture in the English language, where perhaps this is the first time all the pieces fit together, starting with a towering performance from Natalie Portman, arguably the best in her career, following brilliant work with Terrence Malick in Knight of Cups (2015) where her brief but elevated performance was among the film’s high points, a creatively insightful script written by Noah Oppenheim, told in a fragmented manner, highlighting all the interior moments kept away from the cameras and never seen or imagined before, beautifully edited by Sebastián Sepúlveda in what is arguably the best edited film of the year, all held together by a bombastic musical score written by Mica Levi that superbly adds a somber, funereal flourish, yet also expansive symphonic reach that adds an experimental, avant garde element to the film. On top of that, the cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine is exquisite, beautifully combining the external and interior moods that were haunting the First Lady, where the film reaches into the depths of the moment, perhaps only as film can examine, retracing one of the most historic moments in American history. The film is framed by a Life magazine interview taking place a week afterwards by Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) at the vast but empty Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, where Mrs. Kennedy makes it clear she’ll be controlling what gets printed, scrutinizing the reporter’s notes, amusingly offering stories that she later indicates is not for public record, resulting in a surprisingly poignant essay ("For President Kennedy: An Epilogue," by Theodore H. White, Life, 6 ...) that continues to resonate to this day based on its historic impact, as the First Lady was the first to elegantly frame President John F. Kennedy’s legacy, beautifully reaching a chord desperately needed by a country reeling at the time, establishing the myth that will forever be associated with her husband, often referred to as the Camelot era.
Previously the best characterization of Jackie Kennedy came from actress Parker Posey in the outrageously delightful The House of Yes (1997), a film that superimposes her own fictitious images over Jackie Kennedy’s infamous tour of the White House, A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy - YouTube (57:37) before delving into one of the sickest bits of satire ever conceived on film. Now we have Natalie Portman showing a different side of the First Lady, brushing up on history, asking for historical expertise on Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, then designing her own husband’s funeral in a similar fashion, insisting upon the same specifics. During a period when women’s rights and opinions were largely ignored, it’s amazing to think that Jackie Kennedy’s elaborately historic funeral plans for JFK were implemented right down to the last detail, while at the same time her profound dignity on display during a moment of national trauma remains one of the treasured moments in American history, where she personified grace under pressure. Legendary Greek actress Irene Papas noticeably channeled her behavior in the Costa-Gavras political suspense thriller Z (1969), winner of the Best Foreign Film, when right-wing generals along with a police chief staged an assassination of her husband to gain political power in Greece. This film is a look behind the scenes at the private moments where her mood vacillated between unspeakable strength and a crippling anguish, becoming a powerful, yet intimate portrait of a very public grief. Portman is outstanding in the role, literally owning the picture from start to finish, capturing a wounded soul rising to the occasion with a tempered intelligence, displaying a previously unseen confidence and depth of character, elevating to new heights in her career as she literally treads new ground, imagining how the First Lady might have handled tricky situations, relying upon the help of the President’s brother Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and her personal assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Additionally the film is an undeniable technical achievement, from the brilliant cinematography to the mournful musical score that is completely in sync with the changing moods, yet the art direction by Jean Rabasse couldn’t feel more precisely accurate, taking us inside the White House, including the upstairs bedrooms where the public has always been excluded.
The delicacy of the situation occurs after a new President is sworn in, looking forward to running the country, but continually forced to look backwards as well for the last vestiges remaining of old business. It’s here that Portman literally provides new territory, as we’ve never had a look at the First Lady behind the scenes, where she’s not seen as some meek, grieving widow, but an authoritative figure barking out instructions for people to follow, where she is an undeniable Lady Macbethian force to be reckoned with. At the same time, she is the one who must tell the news to their two small children, Caroline and John Jr., that their father won’t be coming home anymore, where she goes to great lengths to include them openly in the family affairs while at the same time protecting them. Moving back and forth in fragmented storytelling, the film offers a highly personalized window into something we’ve never seen before, and does so with an extraordinary complexity, where we hear her question herself in voiceover whether her decision for such a public funeral was for her husband or more for herself. As we relive the traumatic moments of the assassination, a few rare moments stand out, like wiping the blood from her face aboard Air Force One after it happened, or tearfully cleaning herself up afterwards before crawling into bed, and later wandering in a sedated daze, going from room to room in the White House while listening to the title song from the musical Camelot, exposing her privacy in a place she so proudly helped restore, recalling her elegant tour of the White House that doubled as a history lesson, but now she would be forced to leave, where there is pressure by the new administration to move into their new quarters. While she is emotionally shattered by the experience, agonizing over decisions to be made, she is ever mindful of her husband’s legacy, taking great care to help frame it in a positive light, where we get a glimpse of her dignity, intelligence, and heartbreak all at once. One of the more intriguing devices is the use of an Irish Catholic priest, Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) as the First Lady’s personal confidante, literally walking her through the funeral in anguished reflection before his burial, discussing her rage and philosophical doubts, including a startling revelation of her husband’s infidelities, often viewed in close-ups, where their long walks together add a previously unexplored spiritual dimension that hovers over the occasion, adding unique personal insight to the event. Perhaps the most remarkable quality, however, is the emotional vividness of the film, where we’re able to see the piercing vulnerability of the First Lady during a time of great emotional sorrow, yet also her steely resolve as she strives to find a way out of the emotional labyrinth she finds herself stuck behind, where it’s a surprise to find a Chilean director explore what is quintessentially an American story with such relevance and artistic insight.