Natalie Portman stars as Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s intimate and moving film Jackie, which chronicles the days immediately following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November, 1963. The film uses as a framing device an interview of Jackie by Theodore White for Life magazine conducted a week later. The film occasionally flashes back to Jackie’s life in the White House before the murder of her husband, most notably her famous televised tour of the White House. But the film’s focus is on Jackie’s experiences in the hours and days immediately following JFK’s assassination.
Natalie Portman is magnificent in the lead role. She could have easily allowed her costumes to carry the acting load for her, but Ms. Portman is too strong an actress to fall into that biopic trap. She’s riveting from beginning to end. As with Daniel Day Lewis’ towering performance in Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film Lincoln, one of the first things that struck me about Ms. Portman’s performance was her depiction of Jackie’s voice. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but it works wonderfully. I’ve seen other great actors vanish beneath the weight of a faux accent, but here again Ms. Portman is too strong an actress to fall into that trap. She inhabits the character fully, and the film’s structure gives her a wealth of emotionally rich moments to play.
By focusing its story on Jackie and her experiences in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, the film finds a narrative power and an emotional intimacy. It’s devastating to watch Jackie go through this horror, and in watching her pull herself back together after this unimaginable tragedy one cannot be anything less than bowled over by her courage and her strength. The film’s climax is the moment in which Jackie suggests the concept of the Kennedys as “Camelot,” and this brilliant piece of political myth-making on Jackie’s part is the perfect encapsulation of not just her intelligence, but her fierce will to be the author of her own story. This was not a woman who was going to allow others to chart her life’s path.
The film’s laser-tight focus on just the few days immediately following the assassination of President Kennedy gives it an entirely different, and more gripping, feel than most prestige bio-pics. Jackie depicts famous events that shook the United States and that still reverberate today. And yet, the film is surprisingly intimate.
I can’t vouch for the film’s historical accuracy. In Jackie, we watch so many intimate moments with the newly-widowed Jackie, moments that I can’t imagine anyone could have known about. I expect that there’s a lot in this film that was extrapolated by interviews and writings of the time, and I also expect there is a good amount that the filmmakers made up or, at least, took their best guesses at without ironclad proof. While I’d caution anyone against taking this film as history with a capital H, the film “feels” real. There’s an attention to detail in the film’s depiction of the time-period and the many famous moments (LBJ’s swearing-in on-board Air Force One, JFK’s funeral), as well as all of the political figures who appear in the story (including Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ladybird Johnson, Jack Valenti, and many others). More than that, there’s an emotional truth to the events shown in the film. The strong script combined with Ms. Portman’s powerhouse performance combine to chart a course that feels emotionally true. That’s what this film needs in order to work, and it more than achieves this goal.
The film’s flashback structure is effective, as we learn about Jackie through a series of what are almost vignettes, jumping around the hours and days after the assassination. These vignettes accrete into a rich and intimate exploration of Jackie Kennedy. As the film progressed I wondered if Mr. Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheimer were going to actually depict the moment of the assassination, so famously depicted in the Zapruder film, perhaps the most well-known piece of film of all time. The filmmakers wisely hold this moment until almost the very end of the movie, and when it comes, it hits with a powerful force.
Lyndon B. Johnson has taken some hits in recent films. He was depicted quite negatively in 2014’s Selma, where he was presented as slow to support MLK Jr.’s push for civil rights, and boy do he and Ladybird come off poorly here, depicted as focused on themselves and pushing Jackie out of the White House with haste. (LBJ was depicted somewhat more favorably in All The Way, but even there, though the film highlighted his pursuit of noble goals, he was nonetheless depicted as quite a bully of a human being.) And I can’t imagine Jack Valenti would have been too pleased with how he comes off, were he still alive to see it, depicted here as LBJ’s lackey who was similarly unkind towards Jackie Kennedy. I’d be curious to learn more about what historical evidence there is to support these depictions. I don’t like it when movies bend the truth in order to create one-dimensional bad-guys or good-guys. (This helpful article points out several things the film gets right and some places where they bent the truth, such as the priest character who was, apparently, a complete invention. This article from Vanity Fair champions the accuracy of Ms. Portman’s depiction of Jackie’s voice. This article from The Washington Post points out several spots when Jackie clearly diverges from verifiable historical fact, such as the depiction of Jackie’s somewhat drunken evening wandering through White House rooms, but the article argues that this doesn’t weaken the film because 1) as a movie attempting to delve into Jackie’s inner life, some invention is to be expected, and that 2) the film’s dreamy structure, score, etc., announce from the beginning that this is not a film meant to be accepted as 100% fact.)
The filmmakers wisely keep JFK mostly absent from this story, but he does pop up in a few scenes played wonderfully by Caspar Phillipson, who looks remarkably like the real President Kennedy. Billy Crudup does great work as Theodore White (unnamed in the film itself), the journalist interviewing Jackie in late 1963. His scenes together with Ms. Portman really crackle. Great also is Greta Gerwig, who plays Jackie’s social secretary in the White House. Ms. Gerwig brings a lovely warmth to the role as the one woman in the film who Jackie seems to consider a friend. John Hurt (Alien, The Elephant Man, Hellboy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is wonderful in a few scenes as Father McSorley, the invented character with whom Jackie converses in several important scenes. (Mr. Hurt sadly passed away a few days before I posted this review. His strong performance in this film only emphasized how powerful a performer this extraordinary actor still was. What a loss.)
Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State, An Education, Blue Jasmine, Black Mass) presents an unusual depiction of Robert F. Kennedy. He doesn’t quite look or sound the way I expected, and it was interesting to see the film depict him as someone supportive of Jackie Kennedy but lacking her strength. Mr. Sarsgaard is a terrific actor and I enjoyed watching him in the film, and this version of Bobby Kennedy works well in the film even as I have some questions about the historical accuracy of this depiction.
So while I advise against treating Jackie as a historical text, the film is nonetheless a marvelous success. This is a fascinating peek behind the curtain of a momentous time for the United States, and an engaging spotlight on an extraordinary woman. It’s also an acting triumph for Natalie Portman, whose performance is another huge reason for seeing this film. I was quite taken by it.