“I never wanted to be famous. I just became a Kennedy.”
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is one of the many powerful lines from the popular Broadway musical Hamilton, and it’s the type of question that also hangs over Pablo Larraín’s haunting, hypnotic Jackie. In the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his widow takes control of her husband’s legacy. As an ambulance drives the slain president’s body to the autopsy, the First Lady asks the driver: “Do you know who James A. Garfield was? How about William McKinley? What did they do?” The driver doesn’t know, and Jackie informs him that they were both presidents assassinated while in office. “How about Abraham Lincoln?” Jackie asks. The driver obviously knows who Lincoln was. Mrs. Kennedy then requests several books on Lincoln’s funeral procession. Her husband was, in her estimation, a great man. And, like Lincoln, he deserves a great funeral.
Natalie Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy and delivers, without question, the best performance of her career. Adopting Mrs. Kennedy’s breathy voice and socialite accent, Ms. Portman dissolves into the role. She occupies almost every frame of Larraín’s film, and we are captivated every step of the way. Jackie is not a biopic, but rather a glimpse into a few terrible days in Jackie Kennedy’s life; days filled with many questions and few answers; days where she washes her husband’s blood from her hair and sets about enshrining the man’s growing legend.
Noah Oppenheim’s script jumps in and out of moments: the 1962 “Tour of the White House” that Mrs. Kennedy filmed for television; a party and music recital thrown at the White House; the day of and the immediate aftermath following the assassination; and later, at a cold, empty mansion in Hyannis Port, where Jackie gives a guarded interview to a probing Journalist (Billy Crudup). The Journalist wants a minute-by-minute account of the assassination; he wants, he assures Mrs. Kennedy, the truth. But what he’s getting is Jackie’s version of a truth. She chain smokes through the interview, but when the Journalist hints at mentioning her smoking in his article Jackie is quick to correct him: “I don’t smoke.”
The narrative plays out as a series of conversations: Jackie talks with her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), who laments how ineffective the Kennedy presidency has been rendered by his brother’s death; she talks with her longtime friend and aide Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) about where she goes from here; she talks with a Priest (John Hurt) about the cruel nature of God. Through it all, Larraín and editor Sebastián Sepúlveda never let the audience become situated. Recalling Sarah Flack’s editing of Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, the scenery the characters inhabit and the positions they stand it jump and change. It creates a sense of urgent, uncomfortable movement — Jackie plowing ahead, worried that time is against her; as if the more time passes following her husband’s death, the greater the chance he’ll go the way of Garfield and McKinley and be forgotten.
Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography is crisp, fluctuating from bright and beautiful to cold and eerie — from the Kennedy’s arriving in Dallas awash in brilliant sunlight to Jackie staggering through foggy Arlington Cemetery, searching for the perfect spot for her husband’s grave. Under it all is Mica Levi’s intense score, sonically tuned to induce anxiety and pathos in equal measure. All of these elements — the strong across-the-board supporting cast, the breathtaking cinematography, the unsettling soundtrack — are significant, but this is Portman’s film through and through. The actress has never been so unmoored before, even in her impressive Black Swan role. Ms. Portman has long been a marvelous actress, but under every performance there was always the indication that it was still Portman up on the screen. Not so with Jackie. It’s the type of performance that will not simply be admired, but also dissected and studied for years to come. With this film, Portman transcends herself, embodying not so much the real Jackie Kennedy but rather the public’s perception of the famous First Lady.
Perception, and myth making, are at the heart of Jackie. So much media about the Kennedy’s is centered on conspiracy theories, or scandal. This film has no use for that — it strips away the lore and gets to the humanity underneath: the Kennedy’s dancing at the White House like the young couple they were; Jackie sobbing and clearing the blood off her face on Air Force One. Then once it tears down all the myth making, Jackie herself builds it back up. “People like to believe in fairy tales,” she says. And then she lights a cigarette; the kind of cigarette she doesn’t smoke.
This review originally appeared on October 24, 2016.