The story of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in the days immediately following the assassination of her husband is one that has not been lacking for dramatic interpretation. Jackie has been played, in turn, by Jacyln Smith in a 1981 made-for-TV movie, Roma Downey in 1991’s A Woman Named Jackie: The Bouvier Years, and Katie Holmes in the 2011 dramatization, The Kennedys, three actresses who are so different they hardly seem to occupy the same profession. When I first heard that Natalie Portman and Chilean director Pablo Larraín (No, Neruda) were taking another run at Jackie Kennedy, I assumed it was some sort of reinvention, an ambitious director and actress setting out to mine a surreal moment in the American psyche. What they pull off is even more impressive—a story we all know is remade as urgent, raw, and terrifying.
The film is framed by an interview: Jackie (Portman) sits down a week after the assassination with a wry, cutting reporter (Billy Crudup). Their discussion serves mostly as a staging ground, a way for the movie to plant its stakes so it can skillfully pivot. The time frame recounts those seven days, when Jackie transformed from a slightly frail but deeply intelligent and composed First Lady to the flashpoint of a suffering nation. While she kept up a defiant, poised front to the cameras, behind the scenes she was collapsing—cradling her husband’s brains in her lap in that car, wandering drunkenly around the Oval Office in a haze. We see her mourn with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), commiserate with her longtime assistant and closest friend (Greta Gerwig), plan funeral arrangements with her designer (Richard E. Grant) and ask questions about death and the void with a priest to whom she is openly contemptuous (John Hurt). The camera is, as it was in life, always focused intently on Jackie.
And what a Jackie this is! Portman is at turns determined, devastated, and frightening—the self-regarded big swinging dicks in the LBJ White House cower under her gaze. The movie never shies away from the brutality of the President’s death, but while the movie is not apolitical, it doesn’t wrap itself in national tragedy. In fact, one of the best points that Jackie has to make is that the country’s mourning in the wake of Kennedy’s death was orchestrated in part by Jackie herself—her attempt to secure her husband’s legacy as a coping mechanism. Through her profound grief, she finds purpose in projecting strength and unity. (There’s a fantastic scene in which Jackie dresses down Jack Valenti, an LBJ aide, for trying to push her out of her own husband’s wake.) Camelot was the Kennedy’s self-made image, one Jackie held on to for dear life, and with the death of her husband she ended up setting it in cement for the rest of nation as well.
Larrain shoots most of the film in grainy Super 16, which matches up with our historical remembrance of the era, but also gives the film an urgency: Jackie feels both alive and coated in a sepia haze, both human being and self-made myth. This makes her sporadic outbursts of sorrow all the more powerful. Jackie may attempt to write her own story—one of the ongoing plot points is how she steamrolls the grizzled interviewer into printing exactly what she wants him to—but she cannot hide her suffering. This isn’t just the story of Jackie Kennedy in the days after JFK’s assassination, rather it’s a story of a widow in shock who is trying to find a way to deal with unspeakable pain. Jackie just happened to do it all in front of everyone.
Portman has to play it all here; it’s a four-quadrants performance with the extra added weight of avoiding an impersonation of one of the most recognizable women in American history. That she not only pulls it off, but does so while never feeling like she’s reaching, is breathtaking. Portman inhabits Jackie, making her both bigger and more human than we’ve seen her before. We all know the Kennedy story by heart, but you’ll still never look at Jackie the same way again.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site