Adversity is a great yardstick for character. Filmmakers in on this nugget of wisdom understand that the more compelling route to showcasing a historic icon is in the moments or incidents that come to define them, not the rote, cradle-to-the-grave biopic format. Selma did that for Martin Luther King (2014) as did Loving — albeit on a much smaller scale. Now we have Jackie, an up close and intimate inside look at the famous first lady in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination.
The entire mood of Pablo Larraín’s film bears a thick, dour air atop a quiet, yet deep-rooted resolve. It’s an impressively bold attempt at such a revered presidency with much of the project’s success hanging on Natalie Portman’s fully-immersed and utterly mesmerizing portrait of the grieving first widow. Add to that Mica Levi’s beguiling score that palpably embosses the emotional undercurrent of every scene — if you’re unfamiliar with the composer, she brought a similarly aural pulse to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) and with Jackie will surely become a hotly sought resource.
The film begins at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport, Mass. with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup, ostensibly based on Life magazine’s Theodore White who interviewed Jackie around that time). He arrives to get the scoop on the widow’s sense of loss. “There’s the truth that people believe,” Jackie tells him “and there’s what I know.” Thus setting the table for the back and forth parry, which while polite, often tilts towards the adversarial, though it does bear strokes of cathartic relief for Portman’s Ms. Kennedy. Throughout the interview the media savvy Jackie holds the reins tight as well as her inner turmoil. “You want me to describe the sound the bullet made when it collided with my husband’s skull?” she bluntly injects confronting the inevitable before the journalist can wind his way around to the question. From the journalist’s stunned face we then rewind to Dallas to that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963.
The framework constructed by Noah Oppenheim, a former TV exec, history junkie, and penner of such odd movies as Allegiant (2016) and The Maze Runner (2014), tightly weaves the narrative in ever deepening layers as it pops back to the Hyannisport veranda every now and then, and then back to Dallas and the White House as preparations are made for JFK’s funeral and the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch). The main driving thrust of the film becomes Jackie’s desire to have the memorial procession with soldiers and a horse drawn carriage similar to the ceremony put together by Lincoln’s wife after his tragic end — the problem being that authorities and counsel remain adverse because they don’t know if Oswald had any fellow conspirators and worry about the security risk.
Through this post assassination limbo the film makes us feel as if Jackie’s being pushed out of the White House (“A first lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases, it’s inevitable,” she quips during the interview) and there’s a degree of insensitivity to her plight. She’s not alone however. With her two main allies being her brother-in-law, Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) and confidant, Nancy Tuckerman (a nearly indistinguishable Greta Gerwig) — the film’s most touching moments arrive in the pair having Jackie’s back and Jackie having to tell JFK, Jr. and Caroline that their father’s “not coming home.” If you don’t feel something well up, you probably clapped when Old Yeller died.
Larraín, who finds himself a long way from his native Chile, is no stranger to politics and history as he proved with No (2012), his take on the 1988 Chilean Pinochet referendum. And he takes some daring gambles, especially the graphic reconstruction of the Dealey Plaza assassination where you’re practically inside the head wound and later, a blood splattered Jackie as she comes to terms with the reality of events and begins the process of cleansing herself.
In the end, the film does a lot to underscore and debunk the Camelot myth. There’s never any shying from fact or innuendo. Oppenheim and Larraín clearly have their portrait of the woman and it’s a strong one — one that probably would not have held up without Portman. With Stephane Fontaine’s camera often tightly trained on her luminous porcelain face, she holds the screen with such precise emoting nuance that it’s astonishing she never ebbs. The actress is well deserving of her Oscar win for Black Swan (2010), reaches for another level and sticks it.
“Nothing is ever mine, not to keep anyway,” Jackie remarks early on as she reflects on loss and her evolving situation. In conveying such a soulful loss, Portman has made the film and her future winning prospects.