Jackie rises above a mere retelling of a true story we’ve heard so many times before.


3.75 / 5

As America braces to inaugurate its first reality-TV president, Pablo Larraín’s Jackie looks back to the tragic end of the first administration to fully embrace the medium of television. Specifically, as its title suggests, the film focuses on the most iconic of First Ladies, Jacqueline Kennedy. Chronicling her fortitude and grief in the wake of her husband’s assassination, the film depicts a woman conflicted about publicity and fame even as she understands the importance of cultivating image to shape perception.

While her husband’s presidential campaign was boosted by his handsome, confident appearance in contrast to that of the haggard, sweaty Nixon at the first-ever televised presidential debate – and JFK would go on to become the first president to hold live televised press conferences – Jackie herself famously led TV cameras through an hour-long tour of the White House. Parts of that televised tour are recreated verbatim in Jackie, with Natalie Portman perfectly affecting Mrs. Kennedy’s distinct cadence in the black-and-white footage that serves as flashback interludes in a narrative otherwise centered on the aftermath of Dallas.

Overall, the film is framed as retrospection on the part of Jackie, who we see getting contemplative with her priest (John Hurt) and sparring in testy exchanges with a journalist (Billy Crudup) who has come to interview the former FLOTUS. And it’s in these moments of cynicism and doubt that we see the complexities of a woman who, demure as she appears in the White House tour footage, took the reins in the face of tragedy to assure JFK’s funeral procession would be a spectacle to cement his legacy.

Larraín—who, despite proclaiming a distaste for biopics, will see his second such film released this month with the forthcoming Neruda—pulls no punches in his grisly depiction of the assassination. Though we see JFK’s (Caspar Phillipson) head obliterated by the bullet, the far more powerful sequences occur when Jackie recounts attempting to hold her husband’s head together as the car speeds away, or simply in a private moment, when her tears mix with the president’s blood spatter as she cleans herself up. Yet the assassination itself isn’t the crux of this film. Rather it is Jackie’s blend of both vulnerability and strength in ensuring—by borrowing the trappings of Lincoln’s funeral—that she presented to the public an image of her husband that continues to endure over a half century later.

The expertly-cast Portman is spellbinding as the former First Lady, losing herself in a role that requires far more nuance than simply adopting the mannerisms and lilt of Jackie, which she does adroitly. Given the strength of this performance—which, despite it being 2016, still serves as a rare example of a historical event portrayed through a woman’s perspective—and taking into account the Academy’s love of well-handled historical roles, Portman’s a virtual lock for an Oscar.

In exploring the way that perception becomes reality, and how even a meticulously crafted façade can be more meaningful to people than the substance behind it, Jackie rises above a mere retelling of a true story we’ve heard so many times before. After all, JFK succeeded far more in his Camelot atmosphere making Americans feel good about their country than in anything he actually accomplished in office. That sense of unfulfilled potential is driven home by the grieving Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, in a serviceable performance), who laments his brother’s greatest achievement may have simply been solving a nuclear crisis he created for himself in the first place. But Jackie knows better: reality is what we make it.

Leave a Comment