A week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has retreated to a family property in Hyannis Port, MA. She's visited there by a Life Magazine journalist (Billy Crudup) for an interview on the recent tragedy, which she accepts -- with the caveat that she retains strict editorial control. This conversation serves as the backbone of Chilean director Pablo Larrain's nonlinear and hypnotic biopic Jackie, as the scenery cycles through a cavalcade of memories and moments, honing in on the first few days after the murder.
Larrain presents this historical drama with a fever-dream intensity, layering the interview with the harrowing hours in Dallas, the planning for the funeral, and the filming of a 1962 television tour of the White House hosted by the First Lady. The director and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim forego genre expectations, immersing viewers in a lyrical collage of Jackie's grief and grace.
The bulk of the narrative follows Mrs. Kennedy as she deals with the funeral planning. She's consumed with the idea of assigning historical significance to the murder of her husband -- even modelling the procession through the nation's capital, led by a horse-drawn carriage, after Abraham Lincoln's funeral. As the backdrop constantly changes, Jackie's self-imposed walls are both fortified and begin to crumble. She steadfastly demands to White House officials that the procession be an opulent, somber event, sparring with her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) over the plans. She projects confidence and love to her young children when trying to explain the unexplainable, but the façade weakens during private moments with her secretary and lifelong friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and her despair is laid bare during a frank conversation with a Catholic priest (John Hurt). Poignant slivers of the First Lady's conflicted persona are offered during these moments of reflection. She's performing a tightrope act of balancing public identity and private devastation, framed brilliantly by her self-edited conversation with the journalist.
Portman gives a towering performance with her nuanced portrayal of Mrs. Kennedy -- a turn unequivocally worthy of an Oscar nomination. Alternately radiant and dour, Portman is absorbing with her piercing eyes and impossibly thin facial features; this is a career-defining effort from an actress who has never shied away from challenging roles. Perhaps the most spellbinding scene comes when Jackie is alone amidst the splendor of the Oval Office. Portman swills wine with a cigarette in hand, frantically trying on articles of clothing from her immaculate closet as "Camelot" blares from the record player. She harnesses Mrs. Kennedy's deepest forebodings, while remaining unimpeachably concerned with appearance.
All of the proceedings are captured by Stephane Fontaine's gorgeous, grainy photography -- the re-creation of the televised White House tour is particularly memorable. As the action onscreen vacillates through time, Mica Levi's lingering, melancholy score perpetuates the fluidity of the picture. The second-time composer (Under the Skin is her only previous film work) crafts another delicate and morose soundtrack -- each fluttering string feels, like the movie's subject, as if it's on the verge of spontaneous combustion.
Oppenheim shows a tremendous capacity for distilling the essence of monolithic figures into fits and bursts of emotional intimacy; he's able to humanize people who are steeped in such subjective, public lore. No matter what level of veneration we have for various historical figures, they are still human beings. There is no revisionist reverence for Mrs. Kennedy here: Her anxieties, flaws, and self-indulgence are all on full display, as she's obsessed with the sanctimonious thought that the funeral procession is a legacy-building event for the Kennedy name. But the filmmakers have a keen eye for historical significance, and they never try to offer up any tidy summations for these people -- the most trying hardships in life often come and go without much resolution.
Mrs. Kennedy's pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, LBJ's airplane inauguration, and John-John's iconic salute to his fallen father are signifiers of this moment -- all drenched in unthinkable tragedy and etched onto the collective consciousness of the American people. Through the heartrending lens of Jackie's psyche -- her resolve, grieving, and loss of control -- the dread of the event becomes a transfixing human story. Larrain transcends the historical narrative by deconstructing the woman at the center of it all, piecing together the fabric of her character with striking command and unmistakable purpose.