Jackie is structured around an interview the former First Lady gave to famous American journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) eight days after the assassination. Draped in all white at the family’s secluded Hyannis estate, Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman) takes long drags of her cigarette in between riveting recounts of her relationship with the White House. “Oh, and I’ve never smoked a cigarette,” she says as she lights one up looking White in the eyes, and the film’s humor emanates in these moments where she reminds White that she truly controls what’s written. Her tales begin with the assassination day itself, the real pièce de résistance in White’s eyes, as she was flung onto the Air Force One with the blood of her soulmate still stained on her pink Chanel suit.
Maybe my language is a bit dramatic when referencing these assassination day details, but that dramatic storytelling is where Larraín’s expert vision takes Jackie to transcendental heights. The Kennedy family has always been associated with Greek myth, the Iliad-like carnage and ceremony, the family curse, and even Jackie referring to her husband’s term as a Camelot- the mythologizing of a family made their deaths feel less like aberrations than like fulfillments. Much like Danny Boyle did in last year’s Steve Jobs, Larraín washes away Mrs. Kennedy’s preconceptions by presenting a harrowing tale of a woman whose love was publicly shot right next to her. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s camera draws attention to her facial responses, her nervous yet graceful Tour of the White House presence, and her more intimate moments where she’s left with nothing to think about but the “pop” sound of her husband’s death. There’s a particularly moving scene where she tries on all her previously worn, now famous dresses in a frenzy while the Camelot soundtrack blares from another room, and she looks in the mirror with a longing at what once was.
A scene like that wouldn’t work without a magnificent performance by Portman. She masters both the hysteria and poise that ran through Mrs. Kennedy’s mind for that nightmare week of her life. I wouldn’t be surprised if Portman slid into the Oscars for Best Actress once again, and it’s even more amusing that her Best Actress wins would both be for characters who themselves are strenuously performing (this and Black Swan). And Portman’s performance wouldn’t stun if it weren’t for the greatest aspect of Jackie, the thunderous Mica Levi score. Levi’s work was most prominently featured in 2013’s Under the Skin, an atmospheric, visually arresting abstraction that can be reduced to “weird horror movie,” so her experience with eerie soundscapes being introduced to a biopic on America’s most elusive first lady is so perfectly fit.
Even though I brought up the Steve Jobs connection to this year’s Jackie, the comparison between the two I’ve seen in many publications still feels inappropriate. Steve Jobs crafted Jobs into a human by the use of those around him: his ex-wife, his daughter, Wozniak, and his assistant Joanna Hoffman. Jackie, on the other hand, is singularly about Jackie, and nothing or no one else. It’s on purpose that the title doesn’t include her last name, much like the other aforementioned 2016 female psyche-exploring films. Jackie Kennedy will be remembered as one of the most admired women of the 20th century for how she attached moral uplift to one of the most ugly events in American history; through her interview with White and the grand funeral procession she managed that stretched from the White House to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Jackie aims to capture her in exclusively these moments, and what shines past the spotlight is a woman, so keenly aware of her place in history, responding to grief like any other woman would.