Calmly examining the formation of that lasting public image of Jacqueline Kennedy, “Jackie” works as a compelling observation on a woman who happened to be in the middle of one of the darkest historical moments in the 20th American history. While understandably struggling with grief and confusion resulted from her husband’s shocking death, she tries to find a way to control her life and public image as well as her husband’s legacy, and the movie is poignant at times as we watch her virtually enshrining herself along with her husband in an enduring modern legend created by her.
The movie opens with Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) being visited by a journalist played Billy Crudup for their private interview not long after the assassination of President Kennedy and the following state funeral. Although his name is never mentioned in the film, the journalist in the film is a fictional version of real-life journalist Theodore H. White, and White really interviewed Jacqueline Kennedy at her residence located in Massachusetts as shown in the film and then published his interview article “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue” on Life magazine.
As he asks some important questions and she tactfully responds to them, the movie frequently looks around her life at several different time points, and, not so surprisingly, the most prominent flashback part is about that fateful day in Dallas and its dramatically devastating aftermath. We see how everything seemed to be fine for her and her husband as they arrived in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, and then we look at her traumatized (and bloodied) state not long before Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) is ordained as the next president of the United States on the plane.
The movie closely observes how she feels disoriented by the sudden void in her world which is resulted from her husband’s death. When she finally returns to the White House after her husband’s body goes through the autopsy at a hospital, the White House looks far less familiar to her than before, and Mica Levi’s nervous and ambiguous score further accentuates her disoriented state of mind as she grapples with her suddenly changed status.
This part is contrasted with when she made “A Tour of the White House” for TV broadcast in 1961, which is partially recreated in the film with painstaking details. She put considerable efforts into the restoration of the legacy of the White House, and she knew exactly how to present not only herself but also the interior of the White House newly decorated by her to the American public. She did her job gracefully and flawlessly in front of camera, and the result was a big success as mentioned at one point in the film.
That part resonates with the scenes showing her shrewdly discerning her role in her husband’s legacy. She discusses with others including her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) on the details of her husband’s state funeral, and there is a melancholic scene in which she actively determines a burial spot for her husband at Arlington National Cemetery. She leads the public mourning as the casket containing her husband is carried to the US Capitol, and then she certainly maintains her composure well during the funeral procession on the next day as the whole nation is watching her.
The interview scenes in the film look perfunctory at first, but they gradually become more interesting as another layer of narrative while we come to see how much she holds herself with the absolute control over what will be published or not. As creating a myth out of her husband’s presidency and then associating it with the idea of Camelot, she finds herself becoming an icon just like her husband, and that aspect is wryly reflected by a brief later moment when she happens to notice a bunch of mannequins dressed in her fashion style.
Subtly and thoughtfully depicting how she has her humanity enveloped forever in her myth, the director Pablo Larraín and his screenplay writer Noah Oppenheim give us an elusive but engaging mix of history and fiction which freely flows along its non-linear narrative. The period atmosphere of the movie is authentic thanks to excellent production design and costumes, and Larraín and his editor Sebastián Sepúlveda did a fine job of seamlessly blending archival footage shots into the film.
With meticulous character details, Natalie Portman’s superb performance, which was recently Oscar-nominated, is vivid, convincing right from her first scene, and she is particularly marvelous during a number of crucial scenes where she has to suggest feelings and thoughts her character would rather keep to herself. During one scene where her character wordlessly wanders alone around in the White House while a song from musical “Camelot” is played in the background, she does not signify a lot, but we cannot help but wonder about what is going on in her character’s mind. Portman is also supported well by a group of various supporting performers on the fringe including Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Carroll Lynch, Richard E. Grant, Billy Crudup, and John Hurt, and it should be noted that the movie is one of the last films in Hurt’s illustrious acting career before his recent death.
Overall, “Jackie” is an unconventional biographical drama film with an interesting perspective on its fascinating human subject, and I admire its mood, storytelling, and performance. Although Jacqueline Kennedy died more than 20 years ago, what she created has lasted and remained intact, and the movie ironically reminds that to us via its attempt to reexamine her public image. She is still Jackie the First Lady, and we will probably keep wondering about who really existed behind that.