Jackie is a portrait of one of the most important and tragic moments in American history, seen through the eyes of the iconic First Lady, then Jacqueline Kennedy. Jackie places us in her world during the days immediately following her husband’s assassination. Known for her extraordinary dignity and poise, here we see a portrait of the First Lady as she fights to establish her husband’s legacy and the world of “Camelot” that she created and loved so well.
As a dramatic subject, Jackie Kennedy has been exhaustively featured in film and television productions, but she’s often regulated to the background, existing as a figure of support in stories about the life and times of John F. Kennedy and his colorful, powerful family. “Jackie” seeks to change the routine by focusing exclusively on the woman, but only picking a small slice of time to inspect behavioral nuance and psychological wreckage. This is no bio-pic, with screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (“The Maze Runner,” “Allegiant”) zeroing in on specific moments in Jackie’s life that identified her past and solidified her future, grasping the essence of the First Lady without painstakingly inching through her years. Instead of satisfying in a grandly educational manner, “Jackie” offers laser-like focus on the details of a human going through seismic political and personal changes in her life.Arriving in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) tentatively prepares to interview former First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) for Life Magazine, unsure what type of woman he’s going to find. Cautious around a journalist after time in the vocation, Jackie agrees to discuss certain moments of her life with Theodore, focusing on her early years in the White House with husband John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), and the harrowing weeks after his 1963 assassination, where her domestic and national responsibilities were radically changed after Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) assumes power. Trying to maintain control, Jackie drops her guard as she recalls the highs and lows of this time period, clinging to the ideal of her marriage and position while a more troubling reality seeps into her recollections.
“Jackie” is an opera. Director Pablo Larrain (“No,” “The Club”) doesn’t approach the material as an offering of storytelling, but a more abstract understanding of an icon at her most vulnerable, with scoring efforts by Mica Levi driving the feature, adding to its theatrical sense of solemnity. It’s a captivating approach to a life that’s been squeezed dry of surprise, with endless artistic and biographical offerings dissecting the minute-by-minute details of Jackie’s existence, all chasing the mystery of a woman who valued her privacy and lived with a surplus of tragedy. “Jackie” understands the futility of such a similar endeavor, delivering an older, more practiced Jackie in her home, welcoming a journalist with extreme caution, careful to keep him in line with threats of creative control. Theodore is unprepared for such a defense, sustaining attention on his subject, working to open her up, which she does almost by accident, quickly backtracking out of fear she’s exposed too much.
Flashbacks arrive, but not an extensive amount, with time focusing on Jackie’s introduction to the nation via a television special that toured The White House, showing off her personal style and the fantastic history of the dwelling. “Jackie” also visits the assassination of JFK, exploring how a profoundly shaken First Lady steeled herself to maintain public presence and political duty during a horror show of bloodshed, death, and the unknown future of America. These are illuminating points in time, showcasing Jackie in crisis mode as she processes the brutality of the assassination, watching the political machine come to life as Johnson takes command, gently pushing her out of the way.
There’s also an inspection of her fame, contrasting the First Lady character with the real woman, who doesn’t take to the public eye easily. Familiar figures tear through the tale, including Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and personal confidant Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), the Social Secretary of the White House. Relationships don’t have screen time to be fully indulged, but connections and insecurities are bolded, always returning focus on Jackie and her remarkable composure.
“Jackie” isn’t light entertainment. The material enters the darkness of funeral planning and motherhood as a widow, with Jackie protecting her children but also using them to send a message to a public unsure how to get back on its feet again, with some questioning her motive. Jackie’s faith in the “Camelot” dream is also examined, setting a mournful mood with selections from the musical, which also reinforce her skills of media manipulation.
And religion plays a prominent part in the journey, finding Jackie grilling a priest (John Hurt) on spiritual mysteries. It’s a complex character, and Portman absolutely nails the role from accent to exposure, creating a vivid portrait of a woman experiencing substantial pain, but forced to keep calm for the benefit of her family and the nation. Portman’s body language, a profound interior burn, is brilliant.
The picture won’t satisfy viewers craving a full dissection of Jackie Kennedy, but such restraint contributes to its success, finding fresh angles of her experience to analyze. Larrain constructs a beautiful film (16mm cinematography by Stephane Fontaine is inspired and evocative), opening as a curious peek behind the curtain, but gradually revealing itself to be meditative study of survival from a special woman, and her unique experience with grief.