First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy existed in a nearly impossible situation even before her husband was assassinated in November 1963. She was a fairly private person who believed that the White House belonged to all Americans, and so she brought television cameras into the presidential home in early 1962 and acted as a well-rehearsed but uneasy tour guide for the American people in a way that had never been done before. This landmark bit of theater serves as one of many telling story threads in director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, which hopes to give us some insight into Mrs. Kennedy’s life in the days and weeks surrounding the murder of John F. Kennedy, a man who was a constant source of frustration to his wife even after his death.
As you might expect from the Chilean-born director, Larrain did not grow up with Jackie Kennedy as a real presence in his life, so the film is, in a way, his means of figuring out why millions were so fascinated by her until her death. What brand of mystique did Jackie possess that other famous figures did not? Her story is told largely in flashback, as Mrs. Kennedy (played with a combination of allure and raw pain by Natalie Portman) allows herself to be interviewed by an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) a week after the state funeral of her husband. And it’s clear as they speak that the conversation is as much a chance for her to vent her emotions as it is a place to gather facts. She makes it quite clear that she’ll have the final say in what is on and off the record.
Jackie’s pain is all the more elevated by never having had a chance to confront Kennedy about his numerous affairs, or at least smooth things over with him about how she could be a better wife. Although the film is cut together in a decidedly non-linear fashion, Larrain never allows us to get lost in the many storylines, especially when it comes down to where we are in relation to the assassination. Large portions of the film, especially from the death of JFK into the immediate aftermath feels like a horror show of screaming, crying, blood and chaos. The filmmaker saves the blow-by-blow re-creation of the killing until near the end of the film, as Jackie describes it to the reporter, and it’s as bad as you can imagine. But this time around, it’s placed in the context of their life at that exact moment, and we’re keenly aware of the state of their marriage and how close or distant they were feeling at that exact moment.
Of course none of that matters once the bullets start flying, and despite their differences on that day, her overwhelming shock and grief were as real as they come. The scenes set in the aftermath of Kennedy’s death are almost like a wartime documentary where members of the administration as well as newly sworn in president Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) are swarming around Jackie trying to plan a funeral while she is in the early stages of PTSD, still covered in her husband’s blood as she must think about her future, planning the funeral, and finding a place for her and her children to live with no notice. She works with everyone from her assistant Nancy (Greta Gerwig) to her priest (John Hurt) to artist/family confidante William Walton (Richard E. Grant) to brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) to figure out both her world moving forward and the late president’s legacy.
Through the course of Jackie, Larrain slowly pieces together both a series of events and a revealing psychological profile of a person under the most amount of stress imaginable. By the end, we realize that the filmmaker is most impressed by Mrs. Kennedy’s strength and courage, as well as her fierce loyalty to man who could never be entirely loyal to her.
Together with the almost other-worldly camerawork by Stéphane Fontaine (who also shot the current release Elle) and mournful score by Mica Levi (whose work on Under the Skin still gives me chills), Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim give us a fully realized Jackie Kennedy—protective, angry, grieving, caring, spiritual, personal, and aloof. She’s a walking contradiction that still makes sense and maintains an air of mystery while also being transparent. You just have to see it for yourself, which I highly suggest you do, since Jackie is one of the finest films of the year.