Extraordinary in its piercing intimacy and lacerating in its sorrow, Jackie is a remarkably raw portrait of an iconic American first lady, reeling in the wake of tragedy while at the same time summoning the defiant fortitude needed to make her husband’s death meaningful, and to ensure her own survival as something more than a fashionably dressed footnote. Powered by an astonishing performance from a never-better Natalie Portman in the title role, this unconventional bio-drama also marks a boldly assured English-language debut for Pablo Larrain, the gifted Chilean director behind such films as No, The Club and Neruda.
That latter work premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and was notable for the subtle nuances and enigmatically oblique approach with which it considered one of Chile’s cultural giants, the politically uncompromising poet Pablo Neruda. The film added another distinctive entry to Larrain’s already impressive body of work exploring the jagged pieces of a complex national identity.
Molding the layered examination of Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay like a master sculptor, Larrain makes Jackie no less perceptive in its contemplation of America’s loss of innocence than in its under-the-skin study of the bleeding wounds of grief.
A fragmented mosaic that comes together into a portrait of sometimes almost unbearable emotional intensity, it’s also a sharply observed account of how the wheels of the political machine keep turning, even in times of devastating trauma. That aspect should greatly enhance the movie’s resonance in a U.S. election year. Pouncing to acquire rights and then rushing the film into release would be a very smart move for any quality distribution label.
Larrain wastes not a moment before showing us the tangled wreckage of Jackie’s psyche, clearly visible through the tear-stained windows of Portman’s eyes in extreme close-up as she strolls the grounds of the family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a week after John F. Kennedy was murdered. When an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) arrives at the house to interview her, there are no staff to usher him in, no filters of any kind. In her quietly adversarial first words to him, she makes it clear that she will be editing the conversation: “In case I don’t say exactly what I mean.”
As a framing device through which events of the preceding week, as well as earlier moments from the Kennedy presidency, resurface, this might have been clunky in less skilled hands. But being privy to Jackie’s determination to honor her husband while taking control of her own legacy makes for riveting drama. And when she intermittently relinquishes her composure to reveal herself to the reporter, those affecting moments then continue to reverberate in beautiful, unsettling ways as she makes it clear they’re off-limits: “Don’t think for one minute I’m going to let you publish that,” she tells him, after a vivid recollection of her feelings in the instant when the bullets struck Jack (Caspar Phillipson), alongside her in the car in the Dallas motorcade.
In a high-wire performance that encompasses the careful poise as well as the bone-deep insecurities of its subject, Portman’s voice is her greatest asset. There’s a finishing-school exactitude to her phrasing, coupled with quivering notes like fine bone china that might crack with even the softest impact (at times she sounds uncannily like Jessica Lange). But she also has a cool authority when required, her words and her eyes working together to make it clear she brooks no argument.
One of Oppenheim’s smartest ideas was to use the 1962 network television special, A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy, to shed light on the public perception of Jackie during JFK’s presidency. Those scenes mix black-and-white recreations of the special with glimpses of the nervous on-camera guide being coaxed and reassured between takes by loyal staffer Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig).
The aim of the TV special was to let the public in on the extensive redecorating Jackie had overseen at the White House. She raised money privately to buy back furnishings and artworks connected to past presidencies in an effort to bring historical continuity to a residence that doubles as a national monument. That ran contrary to the more standard practice of new occupants swiftly removing all evidence of their predecessors. In line with that thread, Larrain captures moving moments such as Jackie packing up her children’s toys. In one brief shot we also see the hurt that registers on her face as she glimpses Ladybird Johnson (Beth Grant) looking at fabric swatches down a hallway with Jackie’s friend Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant), who had worked closely with her on the redecoration.
That focus on décor also amplifies the public perception of Jackie as a lightweight, or as she puts it in a spiky exchange with her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), “some silly little debutante.”
Almost as present throughout as Portman’s Jackie, Sarsgaard gives this next doomed figure of the Kennedy clan robust dimensions, showing his anger, grief and resentment but also his scrambling bid to ensure that the work he and his brother started and were unable to finish does not go uncredited. The look of quiet outrage that flashes across the face of Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) when Bobby addresses him like he would any underling speaks volumes about the eggshell-like terrain in the White House during that abrupt transition.
The Johnsons both remain in the drama’s peripheral vision field, and yet the observation of the speed with which LBJ stepped into Kennedy’s shoes — insisting on being sworn in on Air Force One even before they got out of Dallas — is merciless. Portman moves as if in a dream in that fascinating scene, still in the blood-spattered pink suit she wore in the motorcade and already being nudged to the sidelines, while Bobby’s haunted eyes seem to foreshadow his own fate.
Much of the film’s densely packed running time concerns the back and forth, the decisions and reversals, of the funeral planning. Here again, the movie is as thoughtful about the rocky navigation of grief as it is about the relentless business of politics.
While riding in a hearse with her husband’s coffin after the body is shipped home, Jackie unnerves both the driver and an attendant by asking what they remember of two other presidents assassinated while in office, James A. Garfield and William McKinley. Unsurprised that the answer is nothing, she becomes fixated on emulating Abraham Lincoln’s elaborate funeral ceremony.
That plan, and Jackie’s intention to march in a procession behind the coffin, creates extreme discomfort in the White House, given the anxieties of the country and the still-unanswered questions about the actions of JFK’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. One terrific scene has a prickly Jackie going up against Johnson’s newly elevated special assistant, Jack Valenti (Max Casella), later longtime president of the MPAA. This section also sheds light on the shifting role of television at that time as a forum for collective mourning.
Larrain and Oppenheim don’t shy away from the element of self-interest in Jackie’s insistence on such a ceremonial public display, even in the way she involved the couple’s young children. The film obstinately refuses to descend into hagiography. But with profound compassion, it shows its subject to be a complicated, at times self-contradictory woman, struggling to secure her future in tangible terms of economic reality as well as in the more abstract sense of how she wishes to be defined. And nor is JFK rendered a saint, his character flaws suggested in confidences shared by Jackie with a priest (John Hurt) whose responses are anything but religious platitudes.
While their roles are limited in scope and screen time, performers like Hurt, Gerwig, Crudup and Grant all register strongly, conveying an affecting range of feeling in their interactions with the central character that underlines Larrain’s strengths as a humanist, as well as a political filmmaker. That’s likewise evident in the heartbreaking scene in which Jackie has to explain to her children about their father’s death.
As good as the cast is, Portman’s incandescent performance is obviously the clincher. Her Jackie is both inscrutable and naked, broken but unquestionably resilient, a mess and yet fiercely dignified. The cogs in her head turn without pause as she assesses each situation and then delivers her response, sometimes with the reflexive spontaneity of a woman reduced to exposed nerve endings and other times with the careful consideration of a political consort who has become a savvy observer. Larrain’s decision to refrain from depicting her reaction in that awful instant in Dallas almost until the end of the movie pays off with wrenching impact.
Jackie is a film very much driven by character and performance, but the visual scheme is entirely in sync with that aim, particularly in cinematographer Stephane Fontaine’s ever-alert use of probing close-ups. The slightly grainy look also is effective in its evocation of the period, elegantly captured in Jean Rabasse’s production design.
Another key element, obviously, is costumes, and Madeleine Fontaine has dressed Portman in impeccable copies of the trademark Oleg Cassini suits that made Jackie such a style icon. One sequence of ricocheting mood swings in which she drinks and smokes while trying on outfit after outfit is mesmerizing. Also a poignant knockout is a scene in which Jackie gazes from a passing car at a department store window filled with mannequins styled in her image. She’s at her most glamorous in glimpses into happier times of White House functions in which Jackie introduced arts, culture and dancing into formerly starchy occasions. Those scenes have their own gentle poignancy in a film whose rhythms are both restless and fluid.
The movie’s gut punch owes part of its exceptional force to Mica Levi’s emotionally charged score, its requiem-style strings heavy with sorrow, sometimes distorted to express a surreal state of warped reality (reminiscent of her fabulous work on Under the Skin). In one gorgeous passage, military drums come in softly over strings and piano as Jackie considers burial sites at Arlington.
There’s also brilliant use of songs from the Lerner & Loewe musical Camelot, a name steeped in legend that would forever be associated with the Kennedy administration, for better or worse. Larrain’s tremendously moving portrait rescues one of the key players from that shorthand sobriquet, revealing her as a creature of infinite psychological and emotional complexity.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition); also in Toronto festival
Production companies: Jackie Productions, Protozoa, LD Entertainment, Fabula, Wild Bunch, Why Not Productions
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Caspar Phillipson
Director: Pablo Larrain
Screenwriter: Noah Oppenheim
Producers: Juan de Dios Larrain, Darren Aronofsky, Mickey Liddell, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel
Executive producers: Pete Shilaimon, Jennifer Monroe, Jayne Hong, Wei Han, Lin Qi, Josh Stern
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Jean Rabasse
Costume designer: Madeleine Fontaine
Music: Mica Levi
Editor: Sebastian Sepulveda
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu, Mathilde Snodgrass
Sales: CAA, IMR
Not rated, 101 minutes