Images of Jackie Kennedy are seared onto our collective consciousness. From her blood-stained pink Chanel suit, to her black funeral veil, and later, as Jackie O, her oversized sunglasses and white jeans, the Iconic First Lady has been ubiquitous in our cultural landscape. All these years later, we still can’t seem get enough of her. Magazines continue to put her on covers, ads for TV movies about her come into our living rooms. And yet, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy has always felt so unknowable.
Was she fragile? Strong? Insecure? Confident? Shallow? Complicated? Was she a fashionable debutante who just happened to marry the man who would be president? Was she a brilliant manipulator of the media and a determined shaper of her husband’s legacy? Jackie, opening this Friday Dec. 2, attempts to answer these questions and more. And Natalie Portman, who stars as the Iconic former First Lady, is sure to get plenty of awards nods for her finely nuanced portrayal.
Not only does Portman nail Kennedy’s accent—that distinctive halting, breathy lilt, hinting of expensive schools and European vacations—she also captures Kennedy’s perfect posture and her many contradictions: her insecurities as well as her steely resolve. This is a raw and intimate portrait from Chilean director Pablo Larrain of a woman suffering untold grief in the days just after her husband President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The camera is often so tight on her that it feels voyeuristic and almost claustrophobic. And the chaotic score by Mica Levi adds to the unsettling mood.
The film centers around an interview Jackie grants to Life Magazine reporter Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup) at her home in Hyannis Port, to set the record straight about her husband’s presidency and honor his legacy. But it is interspersed with flashbacks of the shooting and ensuing days as well as snapshots of earlier, happier times—Jackie nervously conducting her famous televised tour of The White House, or mesmerizing guests as she dances with JFK at a State dinner.
During the Life interview, she toys with the reporter, telling him she doesn’t smoke while dragging on a cigarette. She gives him intimate details about the shooting but then says it’s off the record. “He slumps in my lap. His blood, his brains in my lap” she recalls. “And I’m saying Jack, Jack can you hear me? Jack, I love you!” And then to the reporter, “Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that!”
This is a portrait of Jackie not as the demure, "silly debutante” she was so afraid of being viewed as, but a smart, strong and even manipulative woman who knows what to do to get her way. Yet we also see her at her most vulnerable, especially in private moments. There are many such moments in the film that grip you and don’t let go.
When the soon to be new first lady, Lady Bird Johnson (played by Beth Grant), tries to convince her to change her bloodied clothes, a resolute Jackie replies, “Let them see what they’ve done,” and continues to wear the now infamous pink suit to the hospital and back to The White House on Air Force One. Inside the airplane bathroom we feel as if we are with her as, in a daze, she cries and wipes her husband’s blood off her face—the camera relentlessly tight on her every move.
Later, we witness her dancing crazily around the rooms of The White House as she tries to cope with her grief and worries about her future—trying on fancy dresses, drinking vodka and smoking as she listens to the soundtrack of the musical Camelot spinning over and over on a record player. In another scene, she wanders through a rainy cemetery trying to determine where her late husband’s grave should be. “He can’t just be buried anywhere, “ she says. “He deserves more.”
Yet Kennedy is for the most part a calm, poised, determined widow, and Portman plays her as almost robotic in her steadfast determination to have her husband remembered, and for his funeral procession to be as grand as Abraham Lincoln’s, despite the protestations of those around her about security. Peter Sarsgaard turns in a solid performance as Robert Kennedy, and Greta Gerwig is equally good as Jackie’s Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman. But this is Portman’s film from start to finish, and she runs with it.
As Life reporter White (Crudup) dictates his interview to his editors via phone, he tells them that Jackie wants them to “always remember that for one brief shining moment, there was Camelot.” They will, and so will we.