How a Chilean Director Crafted the Jackie O. Biopic Likely to Get Natalie Portman an Oscar Nod

Photo: Pablo Larraín/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Pablo Larraín’s latest film, Jackie, fictionalizes America’s process of historical myth-making and lays bare the fact that the stories this country tells itself about its own greatness are just that: stories. Seen in the light of the 2016 election results, this film is a timely indictment of America’s thirst for make-believe. The historical drama, which screened at the opening night gala of the fifth edition of the Los Cabos International Film Festival the day after the 2016 U.S. election, couldn’t help but feel like a timely intervention into the very history that had just been made. Here was a movie about a country in grief and about the hardened grace of a First Lady derided and mocked by the media.

Just like Larraín’s Neruda, Jackie is not your regular biopic. For starters, it narrows its focus to the days following that fateful moment in Dallas that ended a president’s life. The camera, which sticks close to Jackie’s grief-stricken face (Natalie Portman has never been better), follows her from the moment she tries to physically hold her husband’s head together after he’s been shot, to the time later in the White House when she cleans the blood off her body, to the public and private conversations that culminated in John F. Kennedy’s memorial procession. But Larraín, working off a script by Noah Oppenheim, fractures the biopic in miniature even further: we learn all of this from an interview Jackie did with journalist Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup) that is confrontational and illuminating.

As Larraín explained to Remezcla in an interview, he worked closely with Oppenheim to narrow the focus down to Jackie as much as possible, doing away with scenes that didn’t include her. He wanted Portman (the only actress he would agree to work with on this project) almost on every shot — he’d long been a fan. “Natalie can play beauty and sadness very well,” a combination that worked well given how the director describes Jackie: “a cocktail of rage, curiosity, and love.” But he also admired the Oscar winner for being the type of actress who takes risks. “And doing Jackie with a Chilean director coming off making the movies I’d made, was risky,” he added. Then again, he underestimates how keenly his first English-language film overlaps with his previous projects. After all, his filmography is known for chiseling away at approved narratives from Chilean history, while No remains one of the most insightful commentaries on the effectiveness of media propaganda.

‘Jackie’ Photo: William Gray/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
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“Doing Jackie with a Chilean director coming off making the movies I’d made, was risky.”

Jackie is about how to perform for the American people and how to feed them the stories they need. It reminds us that “greatness” is an imagined American value, one carefully orchestrated by television specials and curated interviews. In Portman’s portrayal, Jackie O is a mannequin doll unable to shake off the role of First Lady, of wife, even after her dear Jack is killed. In the film’s most memorable scene, she drinks and self-medicates throughout the White House, changing outfits, while listening to the Broadway musical Camelot recording. She reminds us that even in private moments we perform for ourselves. Throughout the interview, we learn how carefully Mrs. Kennedy managed her own image following her husband’s death, especially when she sets out to edit White’s article on her, ending with the now famous call out to the Camelot musical and its myth (“There’ll never be another Camelot again,” she tells him). It’s since become an inextricable part of the Kennedy story.

Larraín’s choice to shoot the star in uncomfortable close ups, with a discomfiting funereal Mica Levi score, is as naked an understanding of American history as we’ve seen this year. It’s not about who people really were but about the myths we construct around them. At the Toronto Film Festival, the Chilean director admitted that the artifice of Camelot was initially puzzling to him. It seemed very superficial to him as a non-American “You can’t just tell the story of Camelot,” he argued, “just because Americans or Canadians will immediately get it. I had to understand it, I had to feel it too, otherwise I couldn’t do it.” And so, while Jackie “is political, of course,” he tried “to connect this to the story of a woman who shaped somehow this country when she had to do it.”

Pablo Larraín
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In a quiet moment when Robert Kennedy and Jackie are in the Lincoln bedroom, she says that the room had always seemed peaceful to her. Bobby disagrees. He says he couldn’t understand how you could spend a night there and not be struck by the history associated with the 16th president. That’s the guy who ended a war and abolished slavery, he says. And it happened right here. As a film, Jackie draws out both sides of that conversation: the quiet personal moments and the historical ones, reminding us that the former become the latter when they’re written about.

In notes from the interview that day that don’t make it to the film, we can find perhaps the key to understanding what makes Jackie so timely and so powerful even in its cynicism. In White’s notes, Jackie at one point says she’d asked Bobby Kennedy, “what’s the line between history and drama?” That’s how White published the line in his memoir though an alternate reading also exists in his notes: “what’s the line between histrionics and drama?” History, histrionics, and drama. It’s no surprise it took a Latin American to harness all three to tell the story of the most melodramatic of American fairy tales, one that’s sure to inspire cynicism and empathy in its audiences in equal measure.

Read the rest of our coverage of Las Cabos International Film Festival here.