Normally I’d post a spoiler cut for a movie still comparatively recent in its release date, especially one with a limited distribution. But that doesn’t apply here, obviously. What’s new isn’t what happens but how you get to see it, and how Jackie shows us grief is really powerful.
Namely, you’re smashed into close-up after close-up — I wouldn’t be surprised if something like a third of the movie was a close-up — in an endless too-close encounter with grief you’d prefer to see from a bit more of a distance. I can’t emphasize how valuable that is. What you want, as a viewer, is distance, and context. You want the camera to back up so you know where you are, what the room looks like, what the surrounding territory looks like. Hell, you’d even in some scenes settle for a view of someone’s coat or shoes, versus being trapped in the lines of John Hurt’s face or the smears streaking Natalie Portman’s cheeks and chin. But you don’t get that distance. You don’t get to pull away, even when you want to.
There is no wide angle on this grief, no neatly-arranged tracking shot that tidies up a personal disaster. This, of course, is where Jackie tries to go — not the route of national disaster, which is a story we know well by now, but a personal one. And the camera brings us too close to it. Not because of decaying statues of decorum vis-a-vis presidential families but because no one wants to be that close to grief, famous or not. The camera doesn’t give us a choice in Jackie, and that is so powerful. You’re trapped. You don’t get to pull away, even to try to understand this constant shattering within its own national landscape. That would require the distance that people cavalierly summon when they write obituaries or biographies or dissertations. This is not that.
There is also, as perhaps was known to people more familiar with the subject matter than I, a great deal of anger, and that was fantastic too. Glued close to the drooping eyelids and withered lips giving voice to the same old platitudes about everything being for a purpose, you are smashed up against the ludicrousness of those platitudes in a way that I hope hurts people who still use them. I hope it cuts deep. See how grandiose and all-knowing you appear when all you are is a frail face full of wrinkles squinting in a strong wind. See how much comfort you offer, and understand why anger in the face of that grotesque hollowness persists. The film doesn’t let you pull back from that.
Nor should it.