Jackie is one of those movies that’s precision-engineered to land an Oscar nomination for acting. It’s an impeccably cast historical drama about the private aspects of an iconic moment, shot alternately in close-up and long-shot. Oh, and there’s an accent.
It’s the Mid-Atlantic accent of Jacqueline Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman: an actor who’s peerless at being able to calibrate a smile. She can make it seem heartbreakingly natural in even an obviously contrived situation (see: Garden State), or make it seem like lifting the corners of her mouth is the most excruciating thing she’s ever done.
That’s the mode here, although almost all of the smiling we get to see her do happens during a flashback to her 1962 televised tour of the White House. The rest of the film is largely set in the days immediately following her husband’s November 1963 assassination, an event portrayed with brutal intimacy and clinical precision.
Even as she reels in shock and horror, Jackie starts to orchestrate her husband’s funeral: a full procession, with horse-drawn casket. The sight of that procession is now familiar to most Americans, even those who weren’t alive at the time, and the film reminds us that having such a lavish send-off was hardly a foregone conclusion given fears of continued attacks. Still, Jackie insisted.
Director Pablo Larraín has created a film that often feels so interior it’s almost Bergmanesque, but he and writer Noah Oppenheim keep their subject squarely within the public eye. Though we occasionally see Jackie alone — chain-smoking and hitting the Stolichnaya as she wanders the White House — she doesn’t speak to us directly. We hear Jackie speaking to her staff and family, to a priest (John Hurt), and to reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup).
Central to the fascination of Jackie is the fact that she’s a highly controlled woman in a situation where it was difficult to control her emotions — and where the distinction between public and private was much more pronounced than it is today. We see Jackie at several different levels of focus, trying desperately to control her self-presentation. At its best, Jackie becomes not just a dramatization of life in the public eye, but an exploration of what it means to construct a self.
For all the film’s subtlety, Larraín and Oppenheim know better than to be too subtle for their own good. The interview with White serves as a framing device that helps us to understand just how deliberately Jackie is calibrating her public presentation, and to what ends. The title song from Camelot is heard multiple times, lest we forget what’s being built here. There are glimpses of the tension between the Kennedys (including Bobby, played by Peter Sarsgaard) and the incoming administration of Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), keeping the historical narrative on track.
Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine evokes the ’60s with a grainy, high-speed look that glows with the natural lighting of scenes set by towering windows or under overcast skies — no HD digital here. The Kennedy-era White House was precisely replicated in a French studio, and we get so close to Jackie that we can almost feel the heavy fabrics of her dresses, including that pink dress.
It’s all the more poignant as the nation prepares for a presidential transition between men so disparate, they make Kennedy and Johnson look like BFFs. It’s hard to imagine what Jackie Kennedy would think of the prospect of Donald Trump occupying the White House…or, then, maybe it’s not. She’d snuff out her cigarette, drain her glass of vodka, and say, “Don’t put your feet on the furniture.”