There are moments in American history that will forever be remembered by anyone alive at the time. But even those who weren’t around when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963 have been touched somehow by the tragedy that shook the nation in ways we can only imagine today. None were more affected more than Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline. Now, she is played by Natalie Portman in Jackie, a film that tries to explore what the First Lady must have been going through following the death of her husband.
Produced by Darren Aronofsky’s company Protozoa, and the English language debut for Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (No), Jackie is one of those films where you think you might know what to expect going in and then be taken by surprise. Rather than focusing on the actual murder, the picture focuses on the days that followed and is framed by an interview the First Lady did with a Time Magazine reporter (Billy Crudup).
As the two of them talk, we see the First Lady taking a TV-viewing American public on a tour of the White House a few years earlier, which is in turn contrasted with her memories about the day of the shooting and what happened afterwards. This structure certainly makes it different from your typical biopic, but it’s also surprising due to Portman’s portrayal of the former First Lady.
The performance is almost immediately striking from the first time she’s onscreen, speaking in such a distinctive way that it actually might throw you off, because her speech patterns are far from Portman’s normal cadence. It’s just an amazing performance since Jackie seems so stiff in the way she speaks and acts, and yet, we do see rare moments of vulnerability where she just breaks down, only to quickly recover. At other times, she’s a head-strong control freak that makes her hard to deal with for those around her since they only want to do the best for someone who would be absolutely shattered.
Even when Portman’s Jackie is less guarded, there’s something about it that feel like it’s all a façade, and there’s an underlying sadness to everything she says and does. It’s to be expected following John’s death, but even when she’s on television trying to be the cordial hostess to the cameras, there’s just something off. Yet this is a good thing, because it’s nothing like the grace with which Portman carries herself in real life. By cutting between different moments before and after the assassination, the film is able to create what seems like an accurate portrayal of Jacqueline as any person who might be faced with such quick and unavoidable grief while still maintaining her steadfast public persona.
Don’t presume from the above that Jackie is merely a performance piece though; other elements are very noteworthy. The main reason the film works even remotely as well as it does is due to Noah Oppenheimer’s fantastic screenplay, which finds a unique way into a fairly elite world that we’ve rarely seen in cinema. Although the focus is always on Jackie, there are so many great supporting roles of those around her, including family and the White House staff who have to step up to help the First Lady in a time when she might not be capable of all she’s trying to do.
In that sense, Portman is surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast, from Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, who has some great lines, to John Hurt as Jackie’s preacher in whom she confides (and who almost steals the movie). The casting is slightly unconventional, but everyone is bringing their A-game, and somehow, it all works, maybe because the script is so good.
Larrain and his crew do an equally fantastic job recreating the interior of the White House and televised events like the White House tour or the funeral procession, bringing an authenticity to the piece that might quell any doubts on how anyone still alive could possible know what was said in the private conversations between people now long dead. The film never glosses over the actual assassination either, as we cut back to it from time to time and view the moments directly following it as Jackie tries to cope while also having to figure out the funeral arrangements.
Larain has made a visually stunning film that almost achieves a Malick-level with its visuals at points, then on top of all that, you have this fantastic stark score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin), which brings so much to every scene, whether it’s pulling you into Jackie’s frame of mind with simple orchestral instrumentations or putting you on edge with discordant string work. It’s obvious early on that we haven’t heard anything quite like it, with the only immediate comparison might be Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood.
When it comes to making films that work as much for the sake of artistic expression as for capturing a moment in history, there’s little question Jackie might be one of the finest pieces of cinematic storytelling we see this year.