Natalie Portman doesn't just play Jacqueline Kennedy in the biopic "Jackie", she embodies her. The film is centered on the actions of the former First Lady on the days immediately following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.
With such a specific focus, I had similar concerns heading-into "Jackie" as I did with "Sully", another true-story profile drama that covers events over a very short period of time. Was there enough source material here to warrant a feature-length film? In order to get to the necessary 95 minutes, Chilean director Pablo Larrain weaves together three separate stories, all involving Mrs. Kennedy. The uneven structure results in a narrative that jumps around in time more than "The Girl on the Train" (I never imagined I'd be making that statement so soon).
"Jackie" is primarily set one week after the assassination. Kennedy is giving her first interview since the funeral and being rushed to move out of The White House (with daughter Caroline and son John-John) to make room for the incoming LBJ administration. Billy Crudup plays Theodore H. White, the LIFE magazine reporter who wrote the story (though he's only referred to as 'The Journalist' in the credits).
Using this conventional interview framework, Larrain inserts flashbacks that give us a look at the shell-shocked recent widow in the minutes and hours following the assassination, as she's trying to evaluate her life and future while scrambling to give her husband the proper funeral and grand farewell she believes he deserved. The relentless close-ups of Portman, who's in every scene, portray Jackie's raw sense of isolation and despair - helplessness and hopelessness.
Within this structure Larrain also inserts numerous clips from the February 1962 TV special - "A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy", in which the First Lady provided 80 million American viewers a look inside "The People's House" for the very first time. This is how most Americans got to know and love Jackie Kennedy. We observe her awkward nature in front of the camera, infused with doses of passion in describing the significance of the decor she picked-out in her redesigning of the Presidential home. These clips provide a stark contrast to the woman portrayed in the rest of the film.
Portman's look is spot-on: perfect hair and clothes, including the iconic pink suit she was wearing the day of the assassination, which she continues to wear, covered in blood, the rest of that day. And, having listened to recordings of the real Jackie Kennedy, I can say Portman absolutely nails her voice as well. The three-layered performance is a challenging one, however I'm not sure (yet) if it's Best Actress-worthy. But, clearly, she will be in every awards season conversation. Among the supporting cast Peter Sarsgaard is the standout - excellent as Bobby Kennedy. He energizes the screen in his handful of scenes with Portman. The harsh, violin-heavy original score is rigid and haunting, accompanied late in the film by a heavy dose of the symbolic title song from the musical "Camelot", which became forever connected with the Kennedy family. For his first English-language film, Larrain certainly nails all the details. Credit to screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, who captured top honors for this script at the Venice Film Festival.
With an uphill battle of a backstory (HBO, Steven Spielberg and Rachel Weisz were all involved in the project at one point before backing-out), it's a testament to everyone involved that this film got made. Scattered storytelling aside, this is a fascinating, inside look at one of the most mysterious, high-profile women in U.S. history.
"Jackie" opens in Limited Release on December 2nd.