With the nervy, sorrowful, intensely first-person biomovie Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Neruda) takes a well-regarded script by Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner) and makes an art-house movie. Anchored by the stunning performance of Natalie Portman, who plays first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy before and after the public slaughter of her husband, the movie is an aching, beautiful thing with bigger things to say about crafting a legacy, the commodification of grief, the sausage-making aspects of politics and a nation shedding another layer of its much-vaunted innocence.
The movie uses as underpinning two famous interviews, time-slipping back and forth between Jackie’s first interview in November, 1963, roughly a week after President John Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the other being the highly-scripted, televised A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy she conducted during her initial year as First Lady. What is especially smart and refreshing is the way Oppenheim, a political wonk and Today Show producer, reveals how Kennedy, aided and abetted by family friends, advisors, and media consultants, deliberately created and controlled her public persona.
Chain-smoking and roaming the Hyannis Port family compound like a ghost in her widowhood, she warns her seasoned interviewer (well-played by Billy Crudup), “Remember, I don’t smoke,” and also reveals with incredible ferocity what it was like to see her husband’s brains splattered over the back of a moving car, only to tell the interviewer, “Don’t think for one minute I’m going to let you publish that.” She insists on the right to edit his story—“in case I don’t say exactly what I mean.” Larrain never loses sight of his subject or star, keeping the camera tight on her and shooting almost every moment from her point of view, right from the moments when Jackie and the charismatic, tough, philandering John Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson, an eerie dead ringer) exit Air Force One, head for the fateful motorcade and board the convertible that will cement them both to a single moment in America’s history.
Almost unnervingly raw and intimate, Larrain’s technique puts us right there with Jackie as she tussles with her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) over how the funeral must be meaningful and full of pomp, leans on her trusted lifelong friend and staffer Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, dialing it way down and the better for it), and barely puts up with the ambitious Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and Ladybird Johnson (Beth Grant), the latter of whom she spots choosing fabric swatches for a White House makeover before she’s even moved out.
Although often gut-wrenching, the movie is supremely compassionate toward its subject. Yet Larrain and Oppenheim pull no punches when it comes to Jackie, who emerges as incredibly complex–fragile, dignified, tough, smart, calculating, broken. Portman may sometimes belabor Kennedy’s finishing school diction and Marilyn Monroe-esque breathiness; still, hers is one of the great performances of the year. Watch how she handles the devastating scenes in which Jackie must tell her two children that their father is gone. Watch how she nails the condescending Bobby Kennedy to the wall by reminding him that, despite her taste in Oleg Cassini suits and luxury at every turn, she is fully aware that many perceive her as “some silly little debutante” and is out to prove otherwise.
Portman has never been better and she deserves every acting nomination and win that comes her way. She, and the movie, benefit greatly from grainy, up-close, period-sensitive cinematography by Stephane Fontaine and a mournfully elegiac, waking-nightmare score by Mica Levy (Under the Skin). There’s also an emotional knockout of a sequence scored to Richard Burton singing the title song from the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, which became an emblem of the era. Jackie takes the tired biomovie format behind the woodshed and makes it passionate, brilliant and daring again.