Jackie and the New Art of the Biopic

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The biopic remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring genres. Fitted with expected ideas of heroism and triumph over adversity, the chance to play one of history’s most important figures is often irresistible for an actor and whether dressed-up in period costume or shedding light on more recent times the biopic reinforces the centrality of individuals in shaping particular events. In the last few years, however, several directors have sought a fresh approach, moving away from the traditional biopic model of birth > hardship > greatness > death > immortality, to something considerably more complex and time-limited, exploring the fallibility of their subject and the cost of their determination.

In Jackie Pablo Larrain joins this new wave of biopic directors with his multi-Oscar nominated tale of America’s most famous First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy which examines the week following the assassination of her husband. Cutting back and forth between various days, we’re shown the fractured and uncertain period that led to President Kennedy’s funeral, watching as Jackie sees her husband murdered next to her – an act that in a second took her from most important woman in America to powerless private citizen – making plans to leave the White House with her children and taking control of the Kennedy legacy with an elaborate funeral procession and an interview with a leading journalist, though none of this takes place in order.

Watching Jackie as a concept, there are striking similarities with Danny Boyle’s 2015 Steve Jobs which, although not a major hit at the box office, was highly critically acclaimed and will come to be regarded as something of a modern masterpiece so adept was its shake-up of the genre. Biopics have long been about the lead actor having an opportunity to bid for award glory, and while the setting can be period-perfect, there’s not always that much meat on the secondary characters or exciting directorial elements to distract from the leading role.

But Steve Jobs was very different, not just in limiting its focus to three product launches but utilising a more theatrical approach to character and inserting the lead into a series of semi-recurring duologues with the fully-fleshed out people he had been close to. Character flaws were writ large, not swept under the carpet, as he bombarded and bulldozed his way through people’s objections and needs, and at no point do you think the character of Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) presented in this film was any kind of hero as a traditional biopic would try to paint him. But what you do understand is that unpleasant though that was these particular traits were a fundamental precursor to his business success that came with a personal cost. You could hate him, most of the people he interacts with in the film don’t like him very much, but they admired him nonetheless.

Larrain has achieved a similar dynamic with Jackie as Natalie Portman’s character strives to create and defend a mythology in the hours and days after the assassination. It’s a film that also has much in common with Peter Landesman’s 2013 film Parkland which used a number of similar techniques to cover exactly the same period but followed the doctors, Secret Service agents and ordinary people of Dallas, including the man that captured the famous footage of the shooting, in the week after the assassination. A companion piece to Parkland then, we first see Jackie as the nervous but sweet Mrs Kennedy hosting a documentary tour around the White House on television, introducing the American people to the furnishings and historic artefacts she has taken some trouble, and great expense, to restore. Beneath the sugary resolve there is steel however and Portman excels at portraying a woman shocked and overcome by grief but still able to take the necessary steps to preserve their three year image as fairy-tale leaders. This is not the sweet fashion horse we’ve come to know but someone who is aware she has a tiny window of opportunity to create the Camelot myth and preserve her husband’s legacy amidst the White House treasures, before she and her family are unceremoniously turfed out.

As with the presentation of Steve Jobs, Jackie herself is highly imperfect and while there are tender moments as she breaks the news to her children, washes blood from her hair, is comforted by her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) or discusses her two lost children with her priest (a brilliant John Hurt in one of his final performances), she is also capable of incredible calculation at the most surprising moments. In one key scene, arriving back in Washington, her attendees offer to help her change but Jackie insists on stepping off the plane to meet the journalists and crowds, as well as walking back into the White House still wearing the splattered Chanel suit from Dallas, with her husband’s blood thickly smeared across the skirt from holding his dying head in her lap.

In her scenes with The Journalist, an excellent Billy Crudup, a week later she is the epitome of rehearsed calm and poise, but still slightly deadened from the shock. Yet she’s still playing-the-game, giving him morsels of juicy gossip and then refusing to let him use them; she wants him to know she knows the truth about her husband’s adultery and dodgy friends, but she chose to be somebody important and his philandering was just the cost of that. Portman and Larrain have cleverly detached Jackie from the years and layers of JFK’s own personality, death and conspiracy theories, to give her life and purpose of her own, not just the politician’s wife, but a woman who eventually breaks down in private, drinking, smoking (which The Journalist is not allowed to report) and saying goodbye to all the dresses and occasions she’d known as First Lady. Like Steve Jobs, Jackie was creating something that would exist beyond herself and the way character is revealed to the audience in both these movies is an important new direction for the biopic genre.

Central performances aside, what also separates these films from the pack is the way in which Boyle and Larrain avoid twee period-drama to give their characters a dynamic and richly detailed thematic setting. One of the joys of Steve Jobs as a film was the integration of visual elements of theatre and design that give insight into Jobs’s aesthetic concerns with beauty and simplicity, alongside the technological images that made aspects of the film seems as though they were taking place inside a computer. For example, backstage at the Opera House in the second launch, Jobs talks to his daughter on a gantry above a sea of cables and coloured lights, while at other times Boyle shows light reflecting from acoustic diffusors and through screens which feel like an operating system. Every image, every single detail has been carefully crafted to shape our perceptions of character, to see a fusion of art, culture and technology that was important to Jobs and his success. This attempt to couch the themes of the film in something other than the central character’s dialogue, allowing us to see the hand of the director, is an important shift in biopic production.

Larrain achieves the same effect in Jackie creating a visual world around her that aptly reflects and reinforces the semi-fictional image of her marriage she wants to present. In the vast maze-like grandeur of the White House, historic and beautifully appointed, Jackie must be worthy of it and make herself part of its history. But it’s a rather austere home, almost clinically clean and preserved, yet it reflects who Jackie becomes by the end, beautiful and perfect on the surface but home to a collection of painful experiences, of deaths and constant endings. Here, as with the borrowed home she meets The Journalist in, everything is remote, not quite relaxed. “Nothing’s ever mine, not to keep” Jackie explains at one point, and you see that in the house too, no one ever stays for long, there’s always someone else to come, and Larrain gives that same sense of transitory ownership, of the White House dwarfing Jackie as she wanders around its corridors alone. For the new biopic then, setting is carefully created as character study, not just a factually accurate creation, but intrinsically part of what the film has to say and how it reflects the personalities and themes under discussion.

The new biopic is then all about scrutiny, not allowing its complicatedly human subjects to escape the critical glare of the viewer. Heroism isn’t the point anymore and while we may still appreciate an individual’s value and importance at the end of the movie, it is balanced by ideas of their frailty, darkness and blindness as well. These dynamically-directed, time-limited complex character-studies are far more than blanket tributes to the achievements of the famous, instead their newly fractured form, tells us that people are difficult, that they achieve great things but they lie or behave badly to cement their place in history. Steve Jobs and Jackie are important markers of a new wave of biopic production that not only examines the power of the individual life, but in the combination of various artistic and story-telling techniques, become a skilled and insightful piece of film-making as well.

Jackie is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1      

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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