Jackie makes a lot of choices--some brilliant, some baffling, many sure to be quite polarizing. However, the film and Director Pablo Larrain could never be accused of standing still or making the obvious choice.
Jackie follows the titular former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), in the wake of her husband’s assassination on that fateful day in 1963. The John F. Kennedy assassination is one of the most intensely remembered and scrutinized events in American history, and its iconography is impossible to avoid. For instance, Larrain only includes the final drive in the open-air limousine and the haunting image of the former first lady in the blood-stained pink Chanel suit on Air Force One. However, the film's purpose is an examination of the newly displaced First Lady in the first few days following her husband’s assassination, as she works obsessively in order to secure a place in history.
Larrain’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy stands in stark contrast to the pristine public perception of Jackie Kennedy: a beautiful, worldly but long-suffering First Lady sidelined by her husband’s eventual assassination. Instead, Larrain’s Jackie is a self-directed, ruthless mastermind of her public image, her agency impossible to ignore. In Jackie, Larrain cuts between three points in her life: during the 1962 taping of A Tour of the White House, in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and in conversation with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup, in a role most likely inspired by Jackie Kennedy’s 1964 interview with Life magazine reporter Theodore H. White) several months after the assassination.
In all of these circumstances, Jackie absolutely commands the narrative surrounding her husband’s legacy. And in Jackie’s hands, her husband’s two-year presidency is remembered by nothing short of American royalty and the great signifiers of Western civilization. During the taping of A Tour of the White House, the first televised document of the White House for American audiences, she makes a point to play up American cultural sophistication against the condescension of more established European powers. She even brings legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals to play at the White House for added legitimacy. Even in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death, she openly frets about how his funeral will compare with that of Lincoln--”there should be MORE horses, MORE soldiers, MORE crying, MORE cameras!” she cries. And in her final act of memorializing her husband, she constructs the most lasting image of his legacy: Camelot. Crudup’s unnamed journalist makes an attempt to uncover some unguarded truth from his subject, but of course that’s an impossible task with someone like Jackie Kennedy. She gets final cut on the article, scrubbing away unflattering details like her smoking habit and her husband’s failures during the Cuban Missile Crisis in order to further her desired narrative: in the words of her husband’s favorite musical, “that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.” Jackie Kennedy is the unquestioned author of her husband--and country’s--narrative, and Jackie highlights her influence with a commanding performance by Natalie Portman.
Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy might be polarizing, but Portman makes a strong effort to highlight some of the stranger aspects of her character’s public presentation. There is, most glaringly, Portman’s accent: breathy, feminine, with an affected New England twang that points to its own artifice at every turn. Despite the more exaggerated aspects of Portman’s performance, there is some truth to her representation of the former first lady. Jackie Kennedy was born as Jacqueline Bouvier from Southhampton, New York, and public records from the Kennedy era seem to suggest a similarly affected quality to her New England accent. But Portman’s accent doesn’t seem grounded in the basis of how ordinary people might actually speak. Any mention of “Jaaa-hck,” for instance, seems to unlock the most conspicuous artifice in her accent. It’s hard to tell at times whether Portman’s performance is brilliant or ridiculous, but it’s certainly a bold choice to take for one of the most revered figures in modern American history. Jackie skirts between those lines as well, but it’s never uninteresting.