It would be easy to make a politely anodyne film about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, America’s most glamorous First Lady. The wife of President John F. Kennedy was by her husband’s side when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and retained the public’s affection until her own death from cancer over 30 years later.
Yet this biographical drama from Chilean director Pablo Larraín takes a braver revisionist approach. Although Jackie is far from unsympathetic, it presents Kennedy as flawed, forceful and far less self-assured than her poised public image suggested during her lifetime. Larraín’s film focuses on the week after JFK’s death and begins with a grieving Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) meeting Life magazine journalist Theodore H. White (Watchmen’s Billy Crudup) for an exclusive interview. Brittle but imperious, Portman’s Kennedy calls the shots from the start. After she breaks down recounting the full bloody horror of watching her husband’s skull being punctured by a bullet, she quickly regains composure and tells White: “Don’t think for a second I’m going to let you publish that.”
These tense exchanges give way to revealing but non-chronological insights into Jackie Kennedy’s defining week. We see her breaking the tragic news to her children, defying security advisers to plan a lavish funeral for her husband, confessing some uncomfortable home truths to a priest (John Hurt), and even peeling off her blood-stained clothes alone in her White House bedroom many hours after the assassination. This scattershot approach works because it captures the gathering storm of conflicting emotions Kennedy is feeling after her husband’s death.
Portman appears in almost every scene and the film’s thrilling intimacy is intensified by Larraín’s uncompromising close-ups and a brilliantly brutal score by Micachu & The Shapes’ Mica Levi. Greta Gerwig and Richard E. Grant provide appealing support as Kennedy’s closest White House confidantes, but it’s Portman’s tour-de-force performance that gives the film its real lifeblood.
Jackie isn’t just a convincing and riveting depiction of a 20th century icon; it’s also a heart-rending portrait of a grieving woman trying to regain control when the life she knows is suddenly and cruelly taken away.