Following the assassination of her husband, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) fights through grief and trauma in the aftermath as she recounts her story to a journalist (Billy Crudup).
The story of JFK's death is one that's either been explored or inspired a number of films. The darkened, paranoia thrillers of the '70s were borne out of both Nixon's tyrannical presidency and the shock that JFK's death brought to America. Yet, in all of these explorations, retellings and dramatisations, Jackie Kennedy has often been relegated to a character in the wings. Pablo Larrain's masterful direction and Natalie Portman's incredible performance has now, at long last, finally brought her story to the forefront and it makes for a fascinating and rewarding experience.
Right from the very beginning, it's clear that the story is not so much about Jackie Kennedy or JFK or even the events of what happened, it's about the idea of grieving in public and the effect that can have on real people with real emotions. There's a truly disturbing scene, at the very beginning, which sees Jackie scrape the blood off her face as she screams crying and, within a few short minutes, she's mustered out of her private booth to witness the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson, played skilfully by John Caroll Lynch. The film uses the funeral arrangements for JFK as a launchpad to examine a huge number of issues, from how the public deals with celebrity, how people grieve in their own way and the idea of grace and dignity in public life. You only need to look at Jackie and then at the way Donald Trump comparts himself to the world to know that we're a long way from the days of Camelot.
As mentioned, Natalie Portman's performance as Jackie is truly breathtaking. It's the attention to production design and costume that helps elevate the performance, by making it less of an impression or impersonation or more of an embodiment. That, in itself, makes the flashbacks to the fateful day all the more distressing and frightening - and her steely resolve as she recounts all of it to Billy Crudup all the more impressive. Crudup, who plays a nameless journalist, is smart enough not to budge or try to steal away time from Portman, instead opting for a blank expression and a probing question here or there. Great Gerwig, who plays Jackie's aide Nancy Tuckerman, acts as a foil and a comfort and gives a surprisingly layered portrayal of someone who's undoubtedly spent their time in the wings and done so without complaint. Richard E. Grant and Peter Sarsgard, as JFK associate Bill Walton and Bobby Kennedy respectively, both give interesting performances in their roles. Grant's character is more knowing, friendly and understanding of Jackie's plight whereas Bobby Kennedy is portrayed as an angered and wounded individual who storms through the proceedings.
In a way, Pablo Larrain's managed to almost personify the various stages of grief into the supporting cast. It's a clever idea, as it makes us understand the roiling emotions that lie behind Portman's glassy eyes. The use of cinematography in Jackie makes for some unsettling moments, particularly as the film deftly splices in real footage from the funeral of JFK almost without notice. At its core, the film is an examination of myths and legends in the politics of America. Throughout the film, we hear bursts of the Broadway musical Camelot - a favourite of Kennedy's - that harks back to a time of glory and honour, and it's as much as the same here. The direction, the production design, the costuming, the attention to detail - it's all aimed at reminding audiences of a time that shouldn't be forgotten and, more precisely, what a scarring effect it had on the world. Even more assiduously, JFK himself is barely seen on screen and has almost zero dialogue in the film. He's referred to in the third person and, although he's the driving force behind the film, we rarely see him. After all, the film is about myth and now, JFK is one and the same.
The only complaint, such as it is, is that the film often belabours certain points or allegories, making it less than subtle. Yet, in a weird way, it works because there was nothing subtle about it all. The funeral - which serves as the key dramatic impetus of the fil - is a reminder of the glory that could have been.
While it may often get too intimate for comfort, Jackie is nevertheless an insightful portrait of one of the defining moments in history - told clearly and forcefully through the eyes of someone who was there.