The assassination of John F. Kennedy still stands as one of the most horrific public executions in US history, but our only perspective thus far has been from the outside looking in. With Jackie, director Pablo Larraín strives to bring a more emotional, alluring viewpoint from the inside-out by following JFK’s famed wife, Jackie Kennedy. Her air of luxury was sometimes interpreted as a vain ego ploy, yet actress Natalie Portman offers a soul-bearing objection (maybe) as the widowed presidential royalty. When JFK died, a part of Jackie died, too – but that doesn’t make for the tastiest headline. This is the assassination of JFK as told by his closest passenger, and her fight to honor the man she loved, to the very last tour.
Larraín’s film begins with Jackie Kennedy inviting in a reporter played by Billy Crudup, so she can explain her account of JFK’s earthly exit. Crudup’s journalist lends a sympathetic ear, but he’s also there for a story, which Jackie demands to edit herself before publication. She teases her interviewee with information that’s immediately stricken from the record, as Jackie goes into detail about her televised White House tour, her husband’s last moments and her planning of JFK’s lengthy funeral procession. As Jackie presses onward through the staged interview, she struggles internally to separate emotions from perceived assumptions of royal wishes, holding back tears with every gory detail. Crudup’s character listens and Jackie waxes on, establishing a respectful repertoire during their verbal sparing match of sorts.
A movie titled Jackie would be useless without a stunning portrayal of JFK’s anointed Queen, and Natalie Portman delivers a truly transformative performance worthy of Oscar debate. Her whispery voice strikes a stark vocal comparison, while her posture suggests American regality. Portman weeps and cries with a strength found in the most dignified public figures, pushing through the pain of loss for the good of her family, country and self. Each story stings with the power of historical legend, while more personal tidbits dive into a human side of the Kennedy family (faults and all). Civilians watched as JFK’s body was driven through Washington, DC, but Jackie exposes the gruelling torture of planning such a spectacle, even if intentions became muddled by Mrs. Kennedy’s desire for deserving prestige.
The vessel of conversation provides for a more interesting information leak, even with Jackie’s demand to have the final say on editorial coverage. Many stories get to the gut-wrenching nature of that horrifying day, but not without some prying from Crudup. It’s a constant game of Jackie second-guessing herself, followed by Crudup reassuring her that everything she did will be remembered for decades.
Through each story, Jackie fights with the thought of selfishly using her husband’s death to satiate her own lavish desires, while Crudup coaxes and sometimes comforts. Is the reporter just playing nice to tug at more juicy leads, though? Such is the psychological chess match being played out by Crudup’s writer and Jackie Kennedy, a “game” rife with nostalgia and unspeakable heartbreak.
On the supporting side, Peter Sarsgaard stars as the dashing Robert Kennedy, who is there to “help” Jackie along the way (Greta Gerwig does the same, but with purer intentions). His conversations are always about legacy, pushing Jackie towards full, open-road marches that might put more dignitaries in danger. Richard E. Grant as LBJ has reservations and concerns about such a parade – especially right after the assassination – and his protests are echoed by other departments as well. Robert pines over the accomplishments JFK could have notched and what the name “Kennedy” could have become, while Jackie mourns the loss of her husband, and comments on how she didn’t ask for fame – she just married a Kennedy.
As Larraín seeks drama in recreation (accompanied by Mica Levi’s chilling, perfected score), Jackie hits upon both the glamour and despair haunting Portman’s first-class housewife. We continually return to her black-and-white television special, where a flair for style comes out in her decorative White House accents. Jackie jokes about how JFK said she’d bankrupt the federal government with all her intricate redesigning, but as “First Lady,” that’s the history she wanted to leave behind. Objects and statues become remembrances one hopes to be long gazed-upon, but then, on her way out of DC, Jackie witnesses Mrs. Johnson (Beth Johnson) starting to remodel all the same curtains and drapes just recently installed – an assessment of what we leave behind, and how quickly things change.
Jackie spares no gory detail when flashing back to that deadly day in Texas, nor should it. In unleashing the devastation of Mrs. Kennedy’s psyche, we must truly understand what Jackie dealt with. Striking facts about how she held JFK’s head close in hopes of stopping the bleeding, and chose to wear the same red-stained clothes until returning home that night. All the choices made that might have seemed showy, but were really just to honor a loving father and beloved president properly, as decided by his grieving widow. Natalie Portman had her work cut out for her, but there’s nothing understated about this possible Best Actress winner – even with a more elongated production that could have trimmed a few slices of dramatic fat.
Jackie is Natalie Portman's show, and she never wastes an opportunity to dazzle as JFK's glamorous grieving widow.