Jackie (Fox Searchlight, R)

Jackie may lack the immediate payoffs of more conventional biopics, but it offers far greater rewards to those patient enough to wait for them.

Jacqueline Kennedy, as First Lady of the United States, was so public a figure that it’s easy to believe that you already know everything there is to know about her. That’s an absurd premise, of course: What the public saw in those years was a carefully constructed façade, not a real person. Pablo Larrain’s biopic Jackie takes as its subject the two Jackies—the public creation and the private woman who played that role—and in exploring the relationship between the two, takes on the whole enterprise of political myth-making while offering an intimate look at a woman whose real life was far from the beautiful image of Camelot which has become associated with the Kennedy administration.

Jackie is framed by an interview Jackie (Natalie Portman) conducts with “The Journalist” (Billy Crudup, playing a character modeled on Theodore White, a writer for Life magazine and author of The Making of the President, 1960), just a week after her husband’s assassination. She calls him to propose the interview and is clearly using him to shape the public image of herself and the Kennedy White House (after smoking multiple cigarettes in his presence, she reminds the reporter that Jackie Kennedy does not smoke). Although she hasn’t had nearly enough time to recover from the shock of her husband’s death, Jackie’s skill in manipulating the reporter demonstrates that she understands the importance of controlling the message in order to shape the public perception of her husband’s presidency.

Many flashbacks fill in Jackie’s past, including several scenes of a less assured version of herself hosting a television special introducing the public to the Kennedy White House. It’s painful to watch her, ill at ease before the camera, being offered mute encouragement by Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) that only underline how badly things are going. These scenes demonstrate that Jackie was not a natural public spokesperson but forced herself to become one, and the contrast between the two Jackies underlines how far she came in that regard in just a few short years.

The assassination and its immediate aftermath are presented in brutal flashbacks, but the focus never really shifts from Jackie herself, from the moment when the bullets strike through the aftermath as she must adjust not only to the loss of her husband, but also of her role. On Air Force One, after her husband has been declared dead, she says to one of the doctors, “I’m his wife—or whatever I am now,” reminding us that as First Lady she subsumed her identity to that of her husband, and now that he’s gone, she’s not sure who she is. It’s also worth remembering that America in 1963 was far less accustomed to gun violence than we are today—the last president assassinated was William McKinley in 1901, and the violent deaths of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, still lay in the future.

Natalie Portman’s performance is a masterpiece of carefully controlled emotion, her Jackie exquisitely aware, even during the worst moments of her life, of how she appears to the public. This is exemplified by her choice (based in fact) to appear before the public wearing the suit stained by her husband’s blood, despite the urging of lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant) to do the conventional thing and change into something clean. Jackie will not deny the reality of what has just happened, and she refuses to offer the public a whitewashed version of a terrible, violent event.

Jackie is anything but a conventional biopic—instead, it’s more like a character study, presented in fragments that in their totality create an in-depth portrait of the subject. The through-line is Portman’s commanding performance, which at first seems mannered but becomes convincing over the course of the film. Everyone else is there to serve her story, including John himself (Casper Phillipson, who has a strong physical resemblance to the president), Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), and a sympathetic priest (John Hurt) who helps Jackie come to terms with her new reality. Jackie may lack the immediate payoffs of more conventional biopics, but it offers far greater rewards to those patient enough to wait for them. | Sarah Boslaugh

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