Writer: Noah Oppenheim
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, John Carroll Lynch, Caspar Phillipson
Running time: 100mins
What’s the story: Weeks after the assassination of President John F Kennedy, a journalist (Crudup) is granted an interview with Jacqueline Kennedy (Portman), who recalls moments of her life as First Lady.
What’s the verdict: From the opening close-up of Natalie Portman’s pinched, pale face and the strings of Mica Levi’s woozy score, it is clear Jackie aims for something beyond a standard soup-to-nuts biopic.
Director Pablo Larraín (who had a better 2016 than most with this and Neruda) and writer Noah Oppenheim (a long way from his scripts for Allegiant and The Maze Runner) conduct a voyage into the traumatised psyche of the one-time First Lady.
Languid and dreamlike in atmosphere and pacing, with nightmarish bursts of terror and grief during and after the assassination, this is dazzling cinema.
Wintry visuals characterise the framing story as a journalist (based on Life magazine’s Theodore H. White) interviews the grieving woman. Throwing up a glass wall of privilege and civility, Portman’s Kennedy is aloof and commanding. After breaking down in a raw moment of anguish when recalling the assassination, she coolly states, “I hope you don’t think for one second I’ll allow you to publish that.”
Here is what Larraín and Oppenheim reveal; the woman behind the poised doll of the newsreels and the panicked figure of the Zapruder footage. Portman, likely to pick up a second Best Actress Oscar for her work here, embodies both characters in a performance of strength, confusion, determinism and sadness.
Warmly coloured flashbacks depict her as a woman aware of the public relations nature of her role: inviting TV cameras to tour the White House, filling it with artists and musicians, creating a wonderland of culture and refinement.
After the assassination, she is the grim keeper of her husband’s legacy: basing his funeral procession on Lincoln’s, battling assistants of new President Lyndon Johnson, raging when discovering Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder was hidden from her, consoling two fatherless children, remembering two children she had lost previously.
In both periods Kennedy is shown to understand the power of visuals to create the legacy of Camelot, history becoming something bigger than what occurred and those affected by it.
Larraín’s camera is unblinking and up-close. Aboard Air Force One following the shooting the former First Lady grills squirming White House officials on the calibre bullet that killed her husband; later in a massive White House bathroom she attempts to scrub off blood still stuck to her.
History buffs will appreciate space made for references to “Wanted” Kennedy flyers pasted over Dallas, the right-wing Birch Society, and the inclusion of Kenny O’Donnell (JFK’S confidant previously portrayed by Kevin Costner in Thirteen Days).
Surrounding Portman is an impressive cast unusual in their selection. Peter Sarsgaard doesn’t look like Bobby Kennedy, but as with Michael Shannon in Elvis & Nixon breathes believable life into the historical figure. Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s friend Nancy Tuckerman and John Hurt as the Kennedys’ priest mournfully console the widow in her loss, while John Carroll Lynch epitomises barely checked impatience as Lyndon Johnson.
Adding to the dream feel, Danish actor and JFK lookalike Caspar Phillipson plays the slain commander-in-chief, yet archive recordings of the actual John F. Kennedy give him a voice.
But, the film belongs to Portman, Larraín and Oppenheim, who have created a spectacular work of art, a lament for a lost (perhaps imaginary) age of political elegance, and a compassionate portrait of a woman whose importance has been arguably overlooked.
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