On Valentine’s Day, 1962, some 80 million television viewers were taken on a personal tour of the White House by then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
The event was a public relations triumph, both for the three major networks that partnered to sponsor and broadcast the tour and for the Kennedys, especially the First Lady. Popularly known as Jackie, the woman who just 21 months later would become one of the world’s most famous icons of widowed grief had just overseen a $2 million renovation of the White House.
This, then, was her opportunity both to justify that expense – which was funded largely through volunteer labor and donations – and to give the first televised look inside one of the nation’s most historic buildings. It also gave the world an up-close-and-personal look at Kennedy herself.
It is the life that Kennedy experienced behind that public façade, though, that director Pablo Larraín (pronounced La-Rah-Een) explores in his film “Jackie.” Working from a screenplay by television executive Noah Oppenheim, Larraín focuses on the period on and around Nov. 22, 1963 – the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
What we see is an assembage of scenes, set up in a distinctly non-chronological sequence, that captures the events of that tragic day and what occurred in the immediate aftermath. Central to everything is Jackie Kennedy herself – portrayed by Natalie Portman.
We see Kennedy, largely in snippets, caught in the horrific moments before and after her husband’s shooting. We see her attempting to handle her grief – no small miracle under the circumstances – while the ensuing national crisis swirls around her. As political power is fought over by the new president, Lyndon Johnson, and the still-reigning attorney general, Robert Kennedy – the dead president’s brother – Jackie must attend to more personal affairs. Such as breaking the news to their young children, arranging for the presidential funeral – battling the incoming administration over the details – all while attempting to both build and enhance the Kennedy legacy.
Larraín and Oppenheim show all this through a mostly invented interview with a writer identified only as “The journalist” – based on the actual journalist Theodore H. White – who writes the magazine piece that, with Jackie’s help, ended up creating the Kennedy “Camelot” image – an image that Larraín perpetuates by using Richard Burton’s performance of that song as the film’s overarching musical score.
Larraín is an artist, and his skills show throughout, both in his ability to meld so many different sequences into a narrative whole and in how effectively he uses Portman to portray one of the world’s most memorable figures. While at first it is jarring to see the diminutive Portman dressed in the same kind of pink suit the real Jackie wore in Dallas, and to hear her talk in the trademark tones that seem strange coming from a grown woman’s mouth, by film’s end Portman has gradually transformed into the film’s title character.
Meanwhile, the film itself has given us new insight into the fortitude that character displayed in the face of more pain than anyone should ever have the misfortune to bear.