The long, sustained note of sad violins from Mica Levi’s atmospheric score slide down as if the life of their sound is falling away. Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is walking alone by the beach of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. She appears regal, composed, yet there’s a mournful look to her face as she faces the cold, winter wind. Her eyes are haunted as if fixed in a blank stare. There’s no reason given as to why she appears as she does, but there’s no need. We already know. The superimposed title tells us. It’s 1963.
That’s the opening scene to the new drama, Jackie, from director Pablo Larrain, and it’s that same sense of something always haunting that remains hanging like the heaviest of dark, sad clouds throughout the rest of the film. The story as presented is neither the life of the wife of the 35th President of the United States, nor is it a biopic ranging from her early days as the daughter of Wall Street stockbroker John Vernou Bouvier lll, her future marriage to Aristotle Onassis in ‘68, or her death in 1994. The film is a layered account of the weeks following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.
Billy Crudup plays a journalist (unnamed but considered to be Theodore H. White of Life magazine) who has come to Hyannis Port to interview Mrs. Kennedy. He’s polite, hesitant, and always aware that it’s the former First Lady who is in control. “You understand I will be editing this conversation,” she tells him, adding, “Just in case I don’t say exactly what I mean.”
From there, as seen from Jackie’s point of view, the film cuts from the interview to the days that followed the tragic event, to the famous 1962 CBS television broadcast where Jackie gave viewers a tour of the White House while Charles Collingswood of CBS News narrated. It was seen by an audience of 56 million.
Yet, despite her hugely successful small screen appearance, during the interview with Crudup’s journalist, she shows little interest, even a disdain, for broadcasting. When the journalist suggests she could have had a career as a broadcaster and that the country would like to know what she is going to do next, she replies, “I can assure you, not television.”
Though the film is based on true events, those private exchanges, such as the one between Jackie and the journalist, are imagined. Yet while conversational liberties may occasionally be taken by writer Noah Oppenheim, his outstanding, inventive screenplay adds quality and a convincing sense of authenticity to the conflicted, frustrated feelings that Jackie Kennedy must have experienced as those around her advised, often at odds with what she wanted. When the journalist asks her whether her faith helped, she responds with, “That’s between me and my priest.”
Her priest is Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) and the private exchange, as imagined by Oppenheim, becomes tense. Jackie tells the priest that God is cruel. “God is love,” he responds, “And God is everywhere.” But Jackie continues to challenge him, wanting to know that if God is everywhere, was he in the bullet that killed the President? “Absolutely,” the priest replies. Her voice turns to one of annoyance – “Well, that’s a funny game he plays; hiding all the time” – to one of anger. “What kind of God takes a father from his two little children?”
The fragmented style of the film may occasionally confuse as it skips from the interview, the TV broadcast, earlier events at the White House, and the days immediately following the assassination, leading up to the funeral procession, yet Jackie actually benefits from a repeat viewing. Having had the opportunity to watch the film a second time, already knowing how those layers of story-telling are to be used, somehow that rhythmic sense of jumbled assembly suddenly appears to work in the film’s favor. Hearing what is being discussed in one scene, followed by a quick cut to illustrate an example adds texture. So, too, does the grainy look of Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography; it captures the authentic flavor of sixties film stock without ever attracting attention to itself as a cinematic gimmick.
There is great support from an outstanding cast, including Peter Sarsgaard, excellent as Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as the White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman, childhood friend to Jackie, and John Carroll Lynch as President Lyndon B. Johnson. But at the center of it all is Natalie Portman’s complex portrayal of Jackie Kennedy, one that’s all things, often at the same time; composed, regal, confused, angered, sad and haunted. When LBJ is swiftly sworn in as President hours after the assassination, the man may be at the center of the screen but it’s Jackie and her look of foggy, unbelieving bewilderment you’re watching. She’s still trying to comprehend what has happened and failing. It’s an achievement in a performance that not even Black Swan prepared us to expect.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 95 Minutes Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)