Jackie is a beautiful film by Pablo Larrain that focuses on Jacqueline Kennedy in the minutes and days following her husband’s assassination.
Larrain is a Chilean film maker, which makes him at outsider to American politics. He poured over documents and was fascinated to read about this day that every age-appropriate American remembers so vividly: when the car turned, the location of the grassy knoll, the flag-wavers lining the street, the bullet’s trajectory – and always sitting beside the president, his wife, Jackie. Larrain thought to himself, what if it was the other way around. What if he was sitting beside her? And in that thought was born a beautifully conceived film that puts its female character front and centre.
Larrain thought the script was good but sent it back with a note to cut every and any scene that she wasn’t in. The camera would be on Jackie the whole time. Obviously a film with such unerring focus would need an actress who could carry it, and Natalie Portman is that actress. This is her best role since Black Swan and honestly it may be her best role, full stop. She inhabits Jackie like a second skin. She doesn’t get caught up in the trappings of impersonation, she just embodies the grace, the thoughtfulness, and the mystery of one of America’s most beloved and glamourous first ladies.
Despite being a favourite in the press, Jacqueline Kennedy is perhaps unknowable. She was always careful about her public persona and was closely guarded when speaking on record. The film makes this abundantly clear through scenes with a journalist (Billy Crudup) about a week after tragedy has struck. She edits her remarks, strikes things from the record, and demands final approval before a single word is printed. Noah Oppenheim’s script is precise and offers up tantalizing looks behind the closed doors of Camelot.
Peter Sarsgaard, as Bobby Kennedy, is a charming lurker. Greta Gerwig in her most un-Gerwig role to date is restrained and almost unrecognizable. I’d heard that Natalie Portman gave a stellar performance in Jackie but I was unprepared for how good the film would be as a whole. This isn’t just a candidate for Best Actress but I believe, for Best Picture. It’s so well-orchestrated, each piece comes together perfectly to make a very satisfying picture. JFK, one of the world’s most recognizable politicians, is a mere shadow in this film. Jackie gets her moment in the sun, which makes Natalie Portman the star at the centre of this movie’s universe.
She deserves all the acclaim she’ll receive. She’s brave and courageous here, mixing grief and poise in an intoxicating cocktail that you won’t be able to tear your eyes from. She’s magnetic. She shimmers with loss and outrage as she protects her husband (and more importantly: his legacy) from the vultures already climbing over his coffin. Jackie feels very much like an insider’s peek-a-boo on what has to be an iconic yet little-understood moment in history. Finally we experience JFK’s assassination as Jackie felt it – as the gruesome murder of her husband and the father of her two young kids. She sat beside him, scooping his brains back into his skull, calling to him even as she knew he was already dead. His blood is still fresh on her dress as LBJ is sworn in just 43 minutes later, Kennedy’s body resting just a few feet away. What to tell the children? What to tell the nation? It’s absolutely fascinating. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography allows us to get very close to the grief, while also appreciating its context: Air Force One, the White House, the Lincoln convertible. Jackie manages to be both historic and quite personal, and Larrain ushers us ably into both worlds. Both Portman and Larrain resist the temptation to over-emote. Like the former first lady herself, restraint, control, and self-possession are at its heart.