Intimacy can be a terrifying thing, and Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero) and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim have made the most intimate portrait yet of Jacqueline Kennedy’s horrifying ordeal following the assassination of her husband, president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jackie has a nightmare vibe to it that’s palpable and unsettling, and Portman’s performance as the widowed first lady is a tour de force of conflicting emotions brought on by the impossibly ghastly reality bookending that sunny day in Dallas. It’s unthinkable that anyone else will ever portray Jackie in such a remarkably nuanced and empathetic way. Portman inhabits the role in all possible ways: physically (Mrs. Kennedy was notably reed-thin), mentally (the condition PTSD wasn’t even a thing in 1963 but it’s all over Portman’s face), and of course vocally. Her mimicking of Jackie’s girlishly breathy voice is eerily faithful to the source. In short, Portman’s surely on the Oscar shortlist.
We think we know everything there is to know about the assassination – even punk band the Misfits recorded a song about it, aptly titled “Bullet” – while we simultaneously pile one conspiracy theory atop another. Even as you read this, somebody, somewhere is watching Abraham Zapruder’s grainy 8mm presidential snuff film. Jackie gives us the one thing we’ve been missing: what it all felt like from the first lady’s point of view. The film is relentless in its authenticity, showing actual television clips of Jackie’s famous tour of the White House, intercutting those with a spot-on reenactment. All the details are here: the swearing-in aboard Air Force One of Kennedy’s vice president, LBJ (Lynch), standing along Lady Bird (The Mindy Project’s Beth Grant, a dead ringer), Robert Kennedy’s (Sarsgaard) desperate dedication to his position as both Jackie’s brother-in-law and the nation’s attorney general, and the gorily spattered pink Chanel that Jackie famously refused to take off so that she could “let them see what they’ve done.”
The broken heart and the bloodied but fiercely unbowed soul of the film rests squarely on the titular Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Even in her shock and grief she fights to secure her husband’s historical legacy, most pointedly by demanding that JFK’s coffin would rest upon a horse-drawn caisson funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to Arlington National Cemetery. Director Larraín captures this and other, less historically obvious – but no less powerful – moments with an obvious determination to make this film as queasily realistic as possible. Portman manages to show the full and conflicting range of emotions swirling within Jackie Kennedy, from her haughtiness with a journalist (Crudup) to her confusion and distress at having to tell the Kennedy children that their father is dead. It’s heartbreaking and heady stuff, but Jackie never feels exploitative of its subject. Instead, it offers the audience a mesmerizingly realistic window into the worst days of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life. It is, in its own way, a eulogy not just to Camelot but to the American dream itself. It is grace in the midst of madness.
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