The Elusive Good Biopic

How Pablo Larraín’s Jackie finds its center.

Ah, the biopic, for when you have a misplaced disregard for the artistic merit of fiction but you don’t want to go the whole nine and make a documentary. At a generous estimate, one in twenty biopics is any good at all, and the errant masterpiece (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X comes to mind, as does Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Minnelli’s Lust For Life; there are others, to be sure) invariably owes more to the skill of the filmmakers than to accurate historicity. This isn’t an accident, and it has no inherent connection to the fact that most biopics are made as bald-faced attempts to win lots of awards. It’s a fundamental artistic issue: if you’re making a movie about a real event or real people, and your central goal is to represent the event or people accurately, make a documentary. The second you go about writing scripts and casting actors and sewing costumes and building sets, you’re in a realm where the film’s artistry is its raison d’etre and the most important characteristic in critical evaluation. Which leads neatly into Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, featuring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, which is opening in theaters this coming weekend and is one of the best biopics in quite some time.

Jackie jumps around in time a bit, framed narratively by the interview Jackie gave Life magazine’s Theodore H. White shortly after her husband’s assassination, flashing back at intervals to the assassination itself and to a television special featuring the First Lady some years before. The decision to tell this particular story this way is an indication that Jackie is not exclusively concerned with history, but with the way in which history is written, proven at great length with the repeated instances in which Portman’s Jackie insists that Billy Crudup’s Theodore H. White include or (far more often) exclude a particular story element. This is not done subtly, as the above mentioned television special is explicitly about surface-level media sheen presented as historical truth, and the fractured, vivid imagery of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is some of the most prevalent in American history, recurring ad infinitum in movies, books, popular music, and throughout the culture, even over a half-century later.

Considering that this movie mostly exists as a means to secure a second Oscar for Natalie Portman – and, really, in a question literally if inadvertently posed by one of the film’s production companies, why not – the extent to which the cinematography serves to highlight the unreality and theatricality of her performance is a little surprising. Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine frame her dead-center whenever possible; even when she’s in motion the blocking very carefully centers her. It’s unnatural, but for a fictional – in the sense that it’s constructed from re-created elements, not in the sense that it’s untrue – film that’s not a debit, but a sign post pointing to what the film’s true purpose is, which in this case is iconography. It’s about icon Natalie Portman playing (with all respect, greater) icon Jackie Kennedy, to the end of being presented a literal icon come Academy Awards time.

“Oscars exist and someone needs to win them.”

This is not, in itself, a bad thing. Oscars exist and someone needs to win them. Why not (he asked with great pomp and circumstance) a movie that’s actually good? Because the thing is, Jackie is good. It’s exquisite to look at, per the previously described ostentation, and Portman’s performance, while laden with all the self-consciousness and portent a portrayal of a Very Important Person in a biopic carries, is tuned to the exact pitch of the surrounding film. Her accent drifts back and forth along an admittedly narrow axis between an accurate mimicking of Jackie Kennedy’s voice and an approximation that sounds more like Bjork playing Marilyn Monroe, but it’s close enough and in any case the film itself is so far from naturalism that a little wavering doesn’t hurt anything. The supporting cast, in turn, is close enough, with Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy not suffering overmuch from Sarsgaard not looking a damn thing like Bobby Kennedy due to the affecting dramatic empathy of his performance. (As is probably redundant to note by now, I’m firmly in favor of, given the choice between accurate mimicry and a good performance, choosing the good performance every single time unless we’re talking about Eddie Murphy because in that case it’s both.)

The only moments in Jackie that clank are ones where Larraín steps aside and gives the script center stage, like the bit where Jackie explains the whole “Camelot” thing that subsequently ascends to Kennedy lore. It’s sentimental enough as a gesture, but considering the vastness of Kennedy hagiography, in the context of the movie it seems like a moment where the writer expects the audience to cry. It’s odd that with all the furious effort expended throughout the rest of the movie, that that moment would stand out as an example of trying too hard, but no stranger than a biopic actually being good for a change.