Jackie puts a First Lady first, letting her story be the central narrative. When it comes to a reenactment of the Kennedy assassination, an event as thoroughly picked over as any in history, it does some good to approach it from an atypical angle. Here we get not a stations-of-the-cross rehearsal of the 1963 trip to Dallas that ended with shots into a limousine ending the life of America’s president, but a tumultuous swarm of swirling memory, impression, and emotion from the woman sitting beside him. She’s trying to put her life back together, protect her late husband’s legacy, keep her children safe, and come to grips with her traumatic experience. Her personal tragedy is also the nation’s. Her private grief must be matched by a public performance thereof. The shock, the pain, the deep horrifying psychological wound torn open the instant her husband slumped forward, bloody and dead, into her lap is her only constant. Her fear of what it means for her and her family’s future – where will they live? what will she do? how will they move on? – is matched only by the eerie insecurity hanging heavily in the air during every conversation and every decision she must now have and make.
When the film begins, it has been a week since the assassination. A reporter (Billy Crudup) arrives at Jackie Kennedy’s home for an interview. She wants her feelings respectfully and accurately presented to the world, an intimate expression after the overwhelming pomp of the state funeral. This is the impetus for screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (whose day job is head producer of the Today show) to unload a stream-of-consciousness memory kaleidoscope built out of a recreated TV special and glimpses of happy times – dinners, dances, concerts in the White House – before settling into a more routine procedural recounting of the raw, ragged days of deliberations and depression immediately following JFK’s death. Taken together, it adds up to history unfolding like a dream, a nightmare, a daze. Is this really happening? The characters seem to hold this unspoken question behind their eyes. Assistants (Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, Max Casella), Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), and a priest (John Hurt) circle with comforting gestures and painful to-do lists. A new President (John Carroll Lynch) and First Lady (Beth Grant) wait in the wings. Everyone is in a suspended state of shock and grief, and yet the world must continue spinning.
While the screenplay is occasionally too obvious – characters uttering expository or nakedly thematic pronouncements at each other – the filmmaking scrapes away many usual ticks and tricks of a period piece wax museum movie. Instead, Pablo Larraín, a Chilean director whose sharply entertaining political docudrama No showed his ability to find humanity in historical excitement, has filmed Jackie in such a way as to bring out the immediacy. This is an emotionally experiential film, with a hushed sound design, a haunting minimalist under-the-skin Mica Levi score, and pale funereal film stock. The camera floats and swerves behind Jackie, her impeccable wardrobe and styling holding together a public persona that’s been made instantly fragile. In tense conversations planning the funeral – it shares with Stephen Frears’ The Queen a similar sense of outsized importance on the symbolism of properly performed civic grief – she’s only just holding in her storm of emotions. For her colleagues, for her children, for her country, she must always make the next best move.
This sense of competing loyalties pervades the film. Who can imagine being forced to live the worst week of your life with the nation hanging on your every move? “Nothing’s mine to keep,” Jackie admits, heartbreakingly, discussing the furnishings of the White House, but you can feel the fresh absence of her husband in the line. In fact, the film’s best move is allowing JFK to not be a character in the film. He’s glimpsed here and there, but it is his lack of presence that becomes his presence. He is gone, and that fact hangs heavily over the film. (I was all set to praise the film for refusing to show the assassination itself, instead relying on a close-up monologue explaining the event and an evocative shot racing behind the car as it speeds away from the fateful Plaza. And then it shows it, like a poison-pill reveal near the end. That troubles me, and I remain unsure as to what extent it’s supposed to be a jolt, and how much it is meant to fulfill a sick expectation of witnessing the head ripped open in a flash.) Jackie asks the driver of the hearse, “Do you remember James Garfield?” When he says he doesn’t, she sets herself to the task of making sure her husband doesn’t suffer that fate, to be snuffed out of the history books twice over.
Tasked with holding this whole endeavor together shot by shot is Natalie Portman, who takes on the role of Jackie with all the careful seriousness and empathetic precision you could ask. It’s a calculated performance, carefully poised, a soft-touch impersonation despite the weight of every choice making itself known in each frame. Portman affects a wispy moneyed East Coast rasp, sliding each line of dialogue out of a placid countenance with pained effort and grim hoarseness. She’s playing a woman of recognizable look and sound, now rattled, but barely wanting to show it. To do so she’s exerting tremendous effort. This is one of those rare performances where the exertion and the decision-making process of the actor in question are transparently evident, but in a way that aligns with – mirroring and bolstering – the character’s struggle to play the role she wants to project to the world. It’s an interesting collaboration between director, writer, and star in evoking an imagined torment of a historical figure’s bleakest days. They, and she, aren’t hiding behind grand ceremony and symbolism, but using it to find some small sense of understandable emotion on which to cling.