For some of us, seeing Jackie the same week as the presidential inauguration could be a potently bittersweet experience. While director Pablo Larraín's film doesn't glorify the supposed Camelot years, it's very clear on one thing: Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) believed with every fiber of her being that keeping up appearances — grace, poise and dignity — was key to holding the nation's top office.
That ideal may seem old-fashioned now, but the film shows the first lady pursuing it in thoughtful and presciently media-savvy ways. Noah Oppenheim's screenplay reminds us that not only did Jackie restore the White House's décor — transforming it into a museum of presidential history — but, in 1962, she gave the nation a televised tour. The film returns repeatedly, almost obsessively, to a re-creation of that broadcast, in which we see a nervous Jackie working earnestly to elevate Americans' sense of their heritage. In the process, she boosts her husband's legacy, a priority that will become all the more pressing after his untimely death.
It's hard to imagine a less conventional biopic than Jackie — indeed, it's less a biography than a meditation. A few flashbacks aside, Larraín focuses exclusively on the hours, days and months immediately following the assassination. John F. Kennedy appears only fleetingly on screen — most notably late in the film, in a brief but harrowing staging of his death.
As this timing indicates, events aren't presented chronologically. A framing device establishes some of what we see as a narrative delivered by Jackie to a nameless journalist (Billy Crudup), who visits her in post-White House seclusion. But the film's time line is just as jarring and fractured as Mica Levi's wonderfully eerie, dissonant score. And Jackie is anything but a reliable narrator; she's prone to offering a graphic description of what happened in Dallas and then proclaiming it off the record, or lighting up while breezily declaring, "I don't smoke."
Going for broke with the first lady's mid-Atlantic accent, Portman is so mannered that her performance initially evokes parody. But, as we witness Jackie in shock, speechless and grieving, that performance reveals dimensions too raw for caricature. The woman comes across as imperious, mercurial and sometimes eccentric, but always real.
Peter Sarsgaard's low-key, menschy portrayal of Bobby Kennedy serves as an excellent foil to Jackie's intensity. As the two hash out the question of how best to memorialize JFK in a "world gone mad," the story again takes on an unexpectedly modern aspect: This isn't just about grief, but about optics.
How much did Jackie love her husband? Did the White House really resemble Camelot for "one brief, shining moment," or was that a nostalgia-laced fiction promulgated by journalists and biographers with her blessing? Jackie raises those questions without answering them, though perhaps it comes closest in the scenes where Jackie confides in a priest (John Hurt) about a history of grief and anger that extends back to her loss of three children.
More than a straight account — of which we already have many — Larraín has created a tone poem about a woman struggling to overcome tragedy and mold her own myth.
To us, accustomed to putting our lives on video, Jackie may seem camera-shy in that 1962 broadcast. But the film suggests that she was, in her decorous way, a pioneer, navigating a brave new world in which iconic images could cross and conquer the globe. While today we may value the candor and accessibility of public figures above their dignity — sometimes to our detriment — that's the world we still live in.