In his first English-language film, Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Neruda, the Oscar-nominated No) has given us a bracingly original take on one of the most documented moments in American history, the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but this time solely from the point of view of the First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Even though the framework of Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is structured like many slice-of-life biopics are (an interview after the fact with flashbacks), Larraín and the brilliant work by editor Sebastián Sepúlveda manage to make it feel vibrant and fresh. As Jackie is being interviewed by a journalist (played by Billy Crudup), we are just a week after JFK’s funeral and Jackie is hardened and protected, dictating the details of the interview and what will be allowed. “I don’t smoke,” she says, taking an extra long drag off her cigarette. Using the 1962 television special, A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy (which aired on all three networks at the time, CBS, NBC and ABC) turns out to be an especially smart move as it gives us the view most Americans had of Jackie Kennedy at the time in order to show us the ‘real’ Jackie.
It’s fascinating that Natalie Portman doesn’t really look that much like Jackie (her lips are a bit too full) and she doesn’t really sound that much like her (ironically, she sounds more like Marilyn Monroe some of the time) but what’s even more fascinating is how much that doesn’t matter. Portman is embodying and evoking someone so well known and so iconic that simple mimicry would have been a crime. Many actresses have tackled America’s most famous First Lady with varying degrees of success; Katie Holmes (the television miniseries The Kennedys) had the look but neither the soul nor the acting chops, Jeanne Tripplehorn (Grey Gardens) had it all but in a fleeting cameo. What Portman does is dig deeper. Through cracks and crevasses, she even outdoes her own Oscar-winning work in Black Swan here, transcending person and persona as she reveals Jackie’s poised exterior to have a fragile and delicate inner struggle to give the best performance of her career.
Portman is wonderfully supported by a strong cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as her staffer Nancy Tuckerman, Max Casella as LBJ’s special assistant Jack Valenti and John Hurt as her priest (giving us some of Jackie’s more intimate moments). All give solid backup despite limited screen time.
Mica Levi’s score is so wonderfully off-kilter for a traditional biopic but then, this film is anything but traditional. At times it’s positively Hitchcockian in its terror and horror. Yet, there are moments of reserve and restraint, just as she showed in her work superb work in Under the Skin.
Stéphane Fontaine shoots Jackie in an almost aggressively space-invading fashion with startling close-ups and he picks up details of shattering subtlety. For many cinematographers, shooting in 16mm for a film that features archival footage (as Jackie does) is often somewhat of a cheat of style, simply adopting a look of a period based on an idea of that time. Instead, Fontaine uses this format for devastating intimacy to show us imperfections and an uncompromising look at grief at its most public and most private.
At a very brisk 95 minutes, Larraín’s Jackie is stripped of any fluff or distractions and is streamlined for maximum focus on a moment in American history so steeped in controversy and conspiracy by focusing on the most human element of it. It’s one of the very best films of the year.