by Philip Price
There's a moment that comes 45 or so minutes into “Jackie” where the former first lady boldly strides into her husband's quarters for the first time since his death and proceeds to play what she recalls as his favorite number from the musical, "Camelot," while trying on much of her wardrobe, sitting in chairs, smoking, sitting in rooms, and admiring swatches of material she no doubt had glorious plans for; soaking in all that will soon be gone, the tragedy, the full comprehension of what our titular character is going through just washing over Jackie herself-maybe for the first time since her husband's death with the full force of reality. There is a plethora of delicious dialogue in Noah Oppenheim's screenplay, but it is moments such as this-moments that require no words where director Pablo Larraín excels at cutting to the heart of what motivates our titular character, what allows her to push on with life, and most impressively what gives “Jackie” the ability of allowing the audience to understand an individual's challenging ideas and decisions in the midst of unfair circumstances that are also undoubtedly the worst days of her life. “Jackie” follows former first lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the week following the assassination of her husband in 1963, but that is what is to be expected from a biographical film concerning Mrs. Kennedy. What one might not necessarily be prepared for, but that “Jackie” certainly delivers, is a closely compacted study of the balance a woman in her (singular) position must pull off when concerning themselves not only with the here and now, but what people will write about her and her husband for decades to come. The ideas of legacy and of shaping that legacy come easier to viewers who obviously know what the myths around the ever-regal Kennedy clan have come to be, but “Jackie” opens our eyes to the fact such myths have to be constructed in some form or fashion. People like to believe in fairy tales and, for Jackie, it seems the goal was always to purport this facade that embodied the noble and majestic lifestyle of her husband's favorite musical. While “Jackie,” the film, looks to more or less deconstruct those myths-revealing the thought process and truths behind the scenes-the film also weirdly works to build up that myth even more albeit with more of an eerie tone than that of the mysterious one Jackie might have preferred.
Framed by the presence of Billy Crudup as a journalist who has come to the current estate where Jackie is temporarily staying in order to conduct an interview we are quickly taken into how adept the former first lady was at distilling negative perceptions into logical truths. There was never such an intent with her televised tour of the white house that aired in 1961 to draw attention to herself, but rather for the American people and to give the everyman a glimpse inside the President's home; to "impart a sense of America's greatness," or so she says. There was never an intent to exploit her children by having them walk by her side as their father's casket was being moved from the church to the capital for the whole world to see, but rather as a means to show those who'd killed her husband what they had actually taken from the world in a loving father, or so she says. There is an acute sense of just how aware Mrs. Kennedy was concerning her actions or lack thereof and how they might feed into the image she wished to project. Larraín tracks his titular subject through the course of this interview that is intended to give us Jackie's version of the story while cutting back and forth between it, the aforementioned tour of the white house, as well as the events that followed in the week of JFK's death on November 22, 1963. Through these intercut timelines Larraín is able to paint a full portrait of his subject that feels as immersive at it ultimately does due to the fact the director hones in on certain qualities of the character that tell us as much about the bigger picture situation as they do the nature of Mrs. Kennedy. Could Jackie Kennedy be wholly defined by this facet of her personality Larraín explores in depth? Probably not, but the fact Mrs. Kennedy was clearly very sharp when it came to managing her image and thus, shaping the legacy of her husband's short-lived presidency into what it has now become lends viewers this single facet through which the remainder of Jackie can be viewed. Creating a more exact vision of this human being that sees every side of her personality filtered through this single aspect rather than allowing self-conflict to step in the way gives us more of an honest sense for who Mrs. Kennedy was as opposed to a film that attempts to run the full gamut of emotions all humans deal in.
In essence, by showing viewers a glimpse of who this woman was and how she conducted herself during the most trying time of her life we get a sense of how Mrs. Kennedy might have conducted herself in every other aspect of her life. What Larraín chooses to focus on specifically in highlighting this single week of his subject’s life is her emphasis on the need for legacy. That, in light of her husband's untimely passing, he be remembered in a way that he might approve of. Jesus left his legacy in parables. Jackie leaves hers through her husband's legacy and the myth-like stature of the family name she married into. She too knows that people like to believe in fairy tales and that those we read about can become closer to us than those physically standing next to us. This is what Jackie desires for she and her husband when people read about their Camelot decades on. By delving into the depths of this fleeting Camelot the Kennedy's built together in the short two years, 10 months, and two days that she and "Jack" were President and First Lady Jackie is able to give its titular character a sense of authenticity in a time of her life that otherwise would seem to have been constantly staged. Of course, such authenticity could not be conveyed without the centerpiece performance of Portman. There are numerous faces one will recognize throughout the cast of Jackie including Peter Sarsgaard as a complex Bobby Kennedy who must walk both sides of the line between respecting Jackie's wishes and adhering to what new President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) thinks is best. Great character actor Beth Grant inhabits Lady Bird Johnson in a few short scenes and completely relays the awkward tonal shift in her role change and where her limits lie with Mrs. Kennedy. Richard E. Grant, Greta Gerwig and Max Casella each provide memorable touches to what could have easily been thankless roles-Grant especially excels as the White House interior designer who has established an affection for the First Lady during her time there. They clearly shared a sense of style and found comfort and trust in one another's ideas and suggestions-extending beyond the simplicity of what color drapes should go in which room. Some of Oppenheim's best material goes to John Hurt as a priest that councils the grieving Mrs. Kennedy though, offering a hell of a final summation that it genuinely seems the newly-widowed Mrs. Kennedy is able to find solace in.
It is Portman who carries the majority of the weight here though. As the third youngest of the wives to live in the white house Jackie Kennedy was admired for her high class tastes and enviable wardrobe-she was the first First Lady who somewhat glamorized the role and Portman embodies this sense of flawlessness in nearly every frame-the actor and her director only showing Mrs. Kennedy at her most vulnerable when she is completely alone. Portman adopts the debutante speaking patterns of that era adding to the stagey appearance Mrs. Kennedy was always sure to keep up. While the accent could easily become grating, Portman is able to lend an endearing quality to the character due to her admirable plight of building her husband's legacy through the spectacle of his funeral despite the fact they had nothing short of a strained relationship. The magic of Portman's performance though is that it indeed conveys this train of thought, but as her arc progresses and we see the full realization of her proposals there comes a duality to Portman's portrayal as even she begins to wonder whether all of this was in service of her husband's legacy or was some of it done for her own satisfaction? As some type of vanity project. Larraín would like to think it sways back and forth as, in the final frames of his film, he keenly shows Mrs. Kennedy noticing mannequins styled after her being set-up in the window of a department store as Portman slyly communicates a sense of satisfaction. Moreover, Mrs. Kennedy simply understood the way in which she could communicate the ideas and persona she desired through unexpected avenues whether that be in her fashion or in her lack of action and it is in this, to repeat myself, acute awareness of such actions that Portman is able to provide the most insightful material in Oppenheim's screenplay a real sense of weight. This is undoubtedly a difficult task as much of it has to be sensed through body language, sideways glances, and facial expressions just as much as it is lines of dialogue communicated with certain tones or inflections. It is through the seeming choice of Larraín to hold the full impact of being in the moment that would forever change and define Mrs. Kennedy's life until the climax that viewers realize no one else could ever fully comprehend the trauma this woman experienced and had to deal with making Portman's performance that much more penetrating.