Jackie: A Life in Tragedy

jackie larrain portman

Jackie is the story of Jacqueline Kennedy, as told by Jacqueline Kennedy, in the wake of her husband’s death and funeral. I’m still not certain where I come down on this film, so let’s talk about some stuff.

The first thing I noticed is the aspect ratio. Instead of being filmed a more common cinematic standard like 1.85:1 or 2.39:1, where the width of the display is almost, or quite a bit greater than, twice the height of the display, respectively, Jackie was projected in the much much narrower 1.66:1. This format is more commonly experienced in television than film. Although, the modern HD TV format is slightly wider than this.

Another curious decision was made, I discovered later, to film this with 16mm cameras (Possibly using super16? 1.66:1 is the native ratio of that film.)

Now, ordinarily the subjects of film and camera and aspect ratio are too technical for a simple review, but here it has purpose. The director, Pablo Larraín, made these decisions for a particular vision of this film. I believe he had a couple of different reasons for this.

First, historical perspective. John F. Kennedy was president at the dawn of the television age, a fact that Natalie Portman, as Jackie, reminds us of in the opening of the film. The production went to great lengths to convincingly recreate, and at times reuse, archive footage. It’s simply easier to do that with an aspect ratio and camera more similar to television.

But, if the first reason is technical, then the second is emotional. At 1.66:1, their is no room in frame for anything more than one focus. At this ratio, one face can be expansive, can fill the screen. One character can dominate the entire film, and Natalie Portman, as that character, did so admirably. Some people might think that narrowing the frame to increase our empathy with the character as a bit of a cheat, but I feel it was an intelligent decision and only serves to increase our attention on her masterful performance.

So where does that leave me? I think that the directing decisions were intelligent, the acting was marvelous, and the manner in which it was filmed and colored increased the realism of the film. I don’t really have anything critical to say, and I did enjoy the film a great deal.

But… I can’t put my finger upon it. It feels to me that there is something missing, something that is preventing this from being a truly great film. I think what it is is the scope of the story. The film is, after all, titled Jackie. It felt unfair to condense the whole of her life into the week of her husband’s assassination. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is not only the woman who buried a husband and two children, not merely the tragic princess of Camelot. Her life extends in both directions, before and after this event. This film only presents a snapshot of that life.

I don’t know. Perhaps that is feeling nagging me. On the other hand, perhaps it is just melancholy. Maybe the lesson of the film is that no one is knowable. We should be happy with snapshots.