Film Review: Jackie

Natalie Portman excels in this uncanny portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy’s anguish and dignity following the murder of her husband.
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If you have been through this once—and you would have to be 45 and up—the prospects of again experiencing those four horrible days in November 1963 that followed the assassination of President John Kennedy is a very weighty proposition.

Jackie is—as it should be—an unremittingly somber and reverential biopic of Jackie Kennedy, told from her shattered perspective as she bravely, if numbly, displayed to the world her own private profile in courage in dealing with the very public tragedy of her husband’s murder and funeral and her swift removal from the White House.

The powers of empathy don’t begin to approach what she went through. We will never know the depths of it, but the film’s relentlessly real, almost documentary approach to the subject gives us an awful inkling of that ordeal. And so, in spades, does Natalie Portman’s emotionally packed, anguished, Oscar-caliber depiction of the First Lady.

Considering the passion and compassion poured into this project, it’s a surprise to find the young maverick Chilean director Pablo Larraín calling the shots. This is his sixth film and his first in English, but he carries it off with astonishing ease and assurance. Only 40 years old himself, he has meticulously realized an era he never knew with a myriad of period details—everything from ’60s fashion to haircuts.

The bedrock of the film is Noah Oppenheim’s excellent and exacting script, which reiterates in a persuasive and forthright fashion most of the known facts, quotes and interaction that transpired during that event. He also—no doubt led and encouraged by Larraín, who specializes in fact-cum-fiction crisscrossing back home—fearlessly fills in the blanks with imagined speculation of how the new widow coped with her first night forever without JFK and the enormous battles she fought uphill to secure the majestic funeral her husband deserved. Any who saw it are brain-burned by it.

Such a precise job is done by all hands in evoking the age of the White House Camelot that Larraín has no problem or hesitation about mixing in existing black-and-white television footage with the superb cinematography of Stéphane Fontaine. Jackie’s television tour of the White House is notably mimed (with the actual voices of CBS’s Charles Collingwood and JFK used). The President is virtually a bit part, visually executed by Danish actor Caspar Phillipson, who is a remarkable ringer. Jackie’s breathy, baby-doll voice is Portman’s own technical, dead-on creation.

Peter Sarsgaard makes a very plausible and humane figure of Bobby Kennedy, comforting and strengthening his widowed sister-in-law, and John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant are fleeting facsimiles of the Johnsons, with Max Casella contributing a nice little flinty bit as LBJ aide Jack Valenti. Glimpses of Jackie’s turbulent mental state comes when she is allowed to vent to the Priest (a wonderfully supportive John Hurt) and the Interviewer (Billy Crudup as an unidentified T.E.B. White, who spoke exclusively to Jackie a week after the assassination for LIFE magazine).

It’s easy to see why no producer wanted to get near such an enduring, open-nerved tragedy before. The pitfalls are so plentiful, it’s rather miraculous to find a movie that misses most of them and yields such a memorable image of Jackie Kennedy.

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