The assassination of John F. Kennedy has so ingrained itself as the defining aspect of our 35th President’s life (and death), that I will admit to Jackie not really having given his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, much thought over the years. I remember it being a big deal when she passed away in 1994, and relishing the twisted performance by Parker Posey of a woman obsessed with her in “The House of Yes.” I remember her status as a fashion icon, and the heartbreaking images (courtesy of the Zapruder film) or her with her husband’s blown out head in her lap. But I haven’t really thought of her as an individual…until now. And wow, it’s hard not to consider her as important to the legacy of her husband as his death was after watching Pablo Larrain’s bold and unforgettable film.
The movie jumps back and forth in time, but focuses primarily on the week or two after President Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963. In particular, we keep coming back to an interview with Life magazine’s Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) as Jackie (Natalie Portman) conducts an interview which she insists on having editorial control over how she is portrayed. We see her far away from the effervescent, beautiful focal point she was after her husband took office, when she led a famous televised tour of the White House that was meant to show off the considerable restorations she did to building. Losing her husband, being with him at his violent end, and being widowed at 34 years old, with two young children to look after, is an amazing loss, and we see it on her face as she is talking to White, or going through the motions of trying to go on and plan her husband’s funeral, which she wants to model after Lincoln’s. Her reasoning to others is that she doesn’t want her husband forgotten? Is that her honest reasoning, though?
Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is a model of simplicity digging deep, and Larrain’s direction digs deep with every straight away shot, every time Portman’s Jackie has to assert herself in the face of unimaginable grief. Aiding him immeasurably is a score by Mica Levi that is melodramatic and bombastic, but stunningly fitting for the film Larrain has made. This is music that you will not be humming after the film, but you will truly never forget its impact on the film, and how it takes you into the fugue state the First Lady is in after her husband’s death. As Jackie, Portman is nothing short of astonishing. The accent she sports for the role is debatable on how well it works, but the emotions she wears on her sleeve are not. It’s heartbreaking and heartfelt, the work she does here, and she gets great support by Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman, her assistant, and plenty others in the cast as she gives us a personal and powerful look at a woman who set a high standard for the role she played during her husband’s time in office, and wrestled with a painful moment in her own, and American, history with the strength and sophistication she exuded while in the spotlight. Like its subject, you will not be able to take your eyes off of “Jackie.”