For his latest movie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem, No, El Club) takes on a subject as American as one can imagine. Jackie is an intimate portrait of one of the most enigmatic public figures in US history—Jacqueline Bouvier "Jackie" Kennedy. In a welcome return of the non-traditional biopic—which had a brief renaissance in 2014 with Selma, Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything, and several others, only to return to the same dead formulas the following year with The Danish Girl, Pawn Sacrifice, Truth, Trumbo, etc.—Jackie provides a perceptive take on the former First Lady. Combining fact with speculation, actual history and collective memory, the picture is essentially a study in grief and grace under pressure. We spend nearly all of the 99 minute running time gazing at Jackie’s face in extreme close ups and full body shots which emphasize her amazing composure under the most difficult circumstances. The film focuses exclusively on Mrs. Kennedy (played beautifully by Natalie Portman) during the week immediately after her husband, president John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The picture is structured around an interview the recently widowed Kennedy conducted with Theodore H. White for LIFE magazine at her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts one week after her husband was fatally shot. Billy Crudup plays a fictional version of White, known only as “The Journalist.” He’s a careful and confrontational presence but Jackie never lets him forget who is in control of their conversation and who will be the ultimate editor of the piece he’ll write. The interview is broken up with flashbacks to Jackie’s famous televised tour of the White House and scenes of her dealing with her family, the White House staff, the press, and the incoming Johnson administration during the days after JFK’s murder.
Throughout the movie we witness the former first lady’s determined and pragmatic behavior as she works diligently to ensure JFK’s legacy and shape lasting images in the in the country’s collective conscious of the way he and his family conducted themselves with dignity and professionalism during their brief period in the White House.
The unexpected casting choices work well. As JFK, Danish actor Caspar Philipson captures the smile and welcoming eyes that so much of America instantly embraced and trusted. John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Zodiac, The Invitation), an actor of astonishing range considering most performers of his physical type are doomed to play the same roles over and over, brings LBJ vividly to life. Greta Gerwig disappears into the role of White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman. Max Casella nails Jack Valenti’s slippery confidence. And Richard E. Grant makes the tiny role of Kennedy confidant William Walton into an immensely intriguing character.
The most surprising piece of casting is Peter Sarsgaard as Robert F. Kennedy. The supporting lead of Boys Don't Cry, Kinsey, and An Education (to name just a few of his credits) looks and sounds nothing like the iconic Attorney General and presidential hopeful from Massachusetts. Yet every choice he makes in the picture rings true.
Of course, the movie lives or dies with Portman’s performance. While she never completely disappears into the role with the kind of Meryl-Streep-like exactitude that magically makes us think we’re watching the actual person, Portman's Jackie Kennedy is a deeply human character with far more layers of complexity than we ever get to see from films and interviews of the woman herself. Portman speaks with Jackie’s singular accent and intonations, and she manages to convey extreme vulnerability by utilizing the same restrained and dignified physicality that made the real Jackie so difficult to read. It’s an impressive and nuanced star turn.
Equally striking are the period recreations of Jackie’s indelible outfits and the way cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Goodbye First Love, Elle) achieves a look that perfectly recalls the images of the era, and this specific historical event, both accurately and artistically. Shooting in 16mm with the 1.66:1 aspect ratio and mixing color stock with black and white wherever appropriate, Fontaine and Larraín use the grain and deep focus of their chosen format to heighten both the authenticity of the look as wells as the humanity of the subject.
Yet when all is said and done, Jackie provides little substantive insight into its title character. The film has no arc and reaches no conclusions of any real import. The ultimate result is no more than an intriguing speculation about an unknowable woman and an exquisite representation of a critical time in history, but that’s far more than most traditional biopics manage to accomplish.