Jackie Enters a First Lady’s Worst Nightmare

The Natalie Portman-starring film follows Jacqueline Kennedy’s efforts to navigate public life in the days after her husband’s assassination.

Fox Searchlight

It’s not unusual for a biopic to present a manicured, zoomed-in version of a true story—compressing a life for audience satisfaction, while boiling off the messier elements. In Jackie, that meta storytelling process is woven into the film’s substance. This is a movie broadly about Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her husband’s assassination, but it’s also about her efforts to shape the country’s perception of the event amid her deep trauma, and to leave out the uglier parts. Pablo Larrain’s new film is a wonderful subversion of one of Hollywood’s favorite genres: an illustration of public life that understands its inherent artifice.

“People like to believe in fairytales,” Jackie (Natalie Portman), intones to the journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). The film is structured around an interview she gave to White eight days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, in which she was careful to mention her husband’s fondness for the musical Camelot, and firmed up the mythic legacy of his presidency. Jackie is a remarkably composed, artful piece of storytelling about storytelling, as an examination of the gauzy reputation of the Kennedys and the darker myth-making involved. It attempts to reckon with the inner life of an iconic figure while acknowledging just how much she worked to obscure it.

Larrain, a Chilean director, has some experience making movies about the selling of a story. His Oscar-nominated No (2012), about the 1988 plebiscite that ended Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, was shot like a 1980s news broadcast, on grainy magnetic tape and in a square aspect ratio. It had a time-capsule feel, but it brought the viewer inside the time capsule; it was a recreation that was more than fuzzy footage of protests on a vintage TV. Jackie has its own visual archness. Here, Larrain films his subjects in extreme close-up, often having them look right at the camera lens, as if they’re speaking straight to the viewer.

There’s a voyeurism to much of the film, which follows Jackie in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death. For much of the first act, she’s still wearing the iconic pink Chanel suit from that day, covered in his blood. The audience sees her undress, shower, talk to her children, and over the following week, try to arrange a state funeral that conveys appropriate grandeur. They see her close relationship with Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), which vacillates between that of bickering siblings and that of an old married couple. She talks to a priest (John Hurt) about her fury with God over what she’s lost, including the children she miscarried. Viewers watch as her pain spills out behind closed doors, while she tries to carefully manage it in front of the cameras. Portman’s performance is, unsurprisingly, perfectly controlled at all times.

Throughout, Larrain frequently cuts back to Jackie’s interview with White, in which she calmly lays out what he can and can’t include in his reporting—reminding him that she’s never smoked a cigarette, for example, as she lights one up in front of him. The gap between how she was and how she wanted the world to see her is made thuddingly obvious, but the story she was promoting was obvious, too—not just her repeated mentions of Camelot (the title song of which, along with Mica Levi’s gorgeous minor-key score, is a recurring motif in the film’s soundtrack), but also in the massive funeral she planned.

Larrain (working from a script by Noah Oppenheim) also pivots back to Jackie’s famous tour of the White House, broadcast live on television in 1962, which helped sell Americans on the major renovations she’d made to the building. There, viewers see Jackie first exercising her muscles for crafting a national narrative. The ostentatiousness of the redecoration was there to lift the whole nation’s spirits, to celebrate America’s historical legacy rather than hide it behind closed doors. Larrain leans into the royal opulence of the Kennedys while poking fun at it from afar.

This is a film about the difference between public and private grief, rendered on the biggest scale possible. But it’s also about the guilt contained therein, as Jackie struggles to reconcile the story she’s built with the very flawed man that she undoubtedly loved. Jackie is an emotionally vivid work, bright and flamboyant at times, but threaded through with compassion. Larrain’s wide-screen cinematography is designed to envelop the viewer in his characters’ mindsets and the stunning environment around them, so it’s be best to see Jackie on a large screen. Above all, what Larrain understands about his subject is that she would want this movie to overwhelm the viewer; he tells her tale with a certain slyness, and with all the majesty she would demand.