In the pantheon of American First Ladies, Jacqueline Kennedy was no Eleanor Roosevelt. She didn’t push for policy, didn’t relinquish her pillbox hat to walk among the needy, didn’t travel to foreign countries as an ambassador and certainly didn’t advise her husband on matters of war. Jackie Kennedy’s role was one most obviously of domesticity, tending to the children — two of whom died as babies — and decorating the White House with handpicked antiques authentic to its history. But director Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, a searing, almost scary thrill ride through the psyche of one very determined woman, serves as a reminder that JFK’s visage owns the half dollar because Jackie owned Americans’ hearts.
In the opening moments, a journalist (Billy Crudup) drills Jackie (Natalie Portman) with pointed questions about the day her husband was assassinated on a sunny afternoon in Dallas. She teases him with a heartfelt, harrowing account — a shard of skull on her lap; the sweet questioning look on that famous face as he slouched down in the car; her wish that she could have blocked him with her own body — before telling him with a stone face, cigarette dangling from her mouth, that it’s all off the record. The verbal tennis match between these two is somehow both jocular and jarring, jump cuts transporting them in a blink from the couch to the porch (and back again) of Jackie’s sterile but palatial lakeside home. The journalist quickly comes to understand that Jackie will essentially be the one writing her own magazine profile.
The journalist’s interview is an artful excuse to flash back to scenes like an eerily faithful recreation of the 1962 CBS White House tour Jackie gave, which Larraín imagines as a tense experience for her, filled with anxiety that she’d muck it up by stumbling on her descriptions of antiques or by not smiling enough. Here, it’s almost impossible to separate Portman from the woman she embodies, as every single utterance has Jackie-perfect diction. She walks with Jackie’s graceful gait, her arms unmoving and both a few inches away from her body, with that same mechanical and practiced quality as the former First Lady.
Portman has had a small succession of parts that have allowed her expand beyond stereotypical female roles, but this portrayal, which never gives in to the Lady Macbeth insanity that it could have, is the pinnacle of her performances. Jackie's oscillations from stoicism, to hysterics, to dutiful wife, to thoughtful art lover, and then to grieving widow and back again, are seamless and heartbreaking. And Noah Oppenheim’s script is rife with the kind of dialogue an actress would sell her soul for: witty, provocative, layered and meaningful beyond the scope of this story.
Throughout the film, Larraín utilizes that jump-cut technique, creating a dreamlike structure that interweaves impressions and memories. He either skips the mundane or imbues it with gravity, like a scene depicting the night before Jackie is to vacate the White House; she plays house, gliding around her elegant living quarters in a daze, pouring martinis, chain-smoking cigarettes, slipping into her couture gowns, carrying a silver tray of drinks to a regal dining table. She sits alone, listening to a record player blasting the jovial theme from Camelot, while Secret Service agents look on from afar. The camera stays close to her; there is no doubt this is Jackie’s story alone — not her husband’s.
The tone of Jackie is difficult to pin down but is one of the most inventive I’ve ever seen in a biopic. Larraín’s employed film composer wunderkind Mica Levi — whose score for Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi horror thriller Under the Skin was at once bewitching and unnerving, with strings shuddering in tremolo all over the place — to add an overwhelming sense of dread. Orchestrations are performed by U.K. collective Orchestrate, and the result is an unsettlingly gorgeous and deceptively simplistic score, like a waltz or a dirge in a haunted medieval castle, moving slowly back and forth from major to minor keys — everything about this film is about the highs and lows, peaks and valleys.
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It's almost easy to overlook the craftswork on these immaculately replicated Chanel numbers Jackie dons, but their invisibility in the story is a testament to their perfection; not one element of the costuming and production design stands apart, but all together recreate the time, place and people.
After watching the film, I developed a newfound appreciation for the woman who kept herself together for the good of America, when everything was falling apart. And I felt the hole in my heart, knowing that the White House shaped by her aesthetic will now be inhabited by a cheapjack vulgarian. Larraín, whose most well-known work is probably 2012’s No (Chile’s entry for the Academy Awards), dives heart first into this story. Every scene is visceral. Every note played tells a story, culminating in the reenactment of America’s most moving and spectacular memorial: JFK’s eight-block-long funeral procession. Jackie is a sharp, haunting portrayal of a woman whose grief was so grand it required a parade. If she could march through the streets with her children to protest her husband’s violent death, we can march peacefully against hate. Jackie’s given us one big lesson: Optics matter.
Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, and Billy Crudup. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Written by Noah Oppenheim. Rated R. 95 minutes. Opens wide Wednesday, December 21.