Pablo Larrain’s Jackie presents a subject in a horrific stage of grief on a stage very few can identify with. Dealing with loss is a universal feeling. The universe watching you grieve is rare and was even more so in November 1963 when the 35th President of the United States was assassinated. A country turned to Jackie Kennedy and her decisions in the days following the tragedy are explored here.
Yet the most effective moments in the picture belong to Jackie’s quieter moments as she deals with her husband’s death. They are made even more powerful by Natalie Portman’s portrayal of her. In what is easily her finest performance since her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan, Jackie is propelled by her even when narrative shortcomings present themselves.
The film is primarily set in the immediate days after President Kennedy’s fateful ride in Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy is tasked with planning a funeral when national security concerns are at a fever pitch. She’s also already grappling with how to preserve his legacy and we witness that through her interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup). It is here we see Jackie’s recollection of the proper way to memorialize a slain leader. How extravagant should the funeral be from a First Lady accused of being a bit extravagant? We see brief glimpses of tension with President Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and especially his aide Jack Valenti (Max Casella).
Some of Jackie’s decisions literally have potential world implications. Far more personal ones are there like informing two young children. We also witness her bond with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and childhood friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Her psyche is explored in another flashback narrative as she talks about it with a priest, played by the late John Hurt.
The dual flashback setup often feels a tad familiar and sometimes stale. Those with a passing knowledge of the JFK assassination aftermath won’t learn much here. What is rewarding is Portman’s mesmerizing work. There’s also a haunting musical score by Mica Levi. John F. Kennedy has been called the first TV President. One thing does come through here with his First Lady’s recounting of events is her understanding of that. In her darkest moments, she also realizes that she must do all she can to control the story before others do. This does provide some fascinating moments of conversation with Crudup’s reporter. Even in her fragile and stricken state, Jackie feels the duty to write this chapter of history her way.
*** (out of four)