Review: ‘Jackie’ Transcends Biopics, This Is A Mesmerising Film About History Itself

This story is the stuff of myth and legend, but with Natalie Portman it couldn't feel more real.

In April 1963, Washington Post publisher Philip Graham called journalism “a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand”. Seven months later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and a palimpsest of competing histories began to be drafted.

The event has been so intensively documented and analysed that Kennedy’s entire presidency feels hyperreal… even to those who aren’t American, and who weren’t alive in 1963. Each iteration casts its own ripples, making the JFK assassination mesmerising yet indistinct, like a reflection in a rain-splashed lake. No one narrative can capture it all.

Trying to mould history into historical film is drafting on another level. Cinema sutures locations, faces, movements, sounds and speech together to create a powerful impression that this is how real events actually occurred. But Pablo Larraín’s delicate, magnificent film Jackie destabilises the biopic’s illusion of posterity, right from the woozy string glissandos that kick off Mica Levi’s dreamlike soundtrack.

By immersing us in Jackie Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman) subjective experience rather than observing her from the outside, Larraín gets closer than a traditional biopic to capturing an individual’s capacity to shape history.

The Intimacy of Memory

Jackie is structured around an interview the slain president’s wife gave to Life magazine at Hyannis Port, which was published on December 3, 1963. (Some of the shots in Larraín’s film are taken directly from the photographs accompanying this story.) Chain-smoking in a beige sweater — a neutral presence, in neither the widow’s weeds nor the sorbet colours she wore as First Lady — Jackie is wary and combative, alert to this singular opportunity.

And she understands — the film shows she’s always understood — the slippage between truth and its performance. “I don’t smoke,” she tells The Journalist (Billy Crudup), exhaling her cigarette smoke. And she betrays her anger at those who felt the state funeral was excessive — “There should have been more horses, more soldiers, more crying, more cameras!” — then recovers her composure: “I never said that”.

Nonetheless, as she jousts with the Journalist, Jackie is drowning in an abyss of memory, grasping desperately at all her intimate ideas about herself and her husband Jack (Caspar Phillipson). “Even I’m starting to lose him,” she tells White House cultural advisor Bill Walton (Richard E Grant). “Pretty soon, he’ll be just another oil portrait lining these hallways.”

The film unfolds in vignettes of Jackie’s memories, looping and intertwining. Sunset on Hyannis beach. Riding silently with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) in a car with Jack’s coffin. Conversations with Bobby and Bill, with her friend and assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and with a Priest (John Hurt). Choosing a gravesite at rain-soaked Arlington National Cemetery. Putting on a brave face for her son’s third birthday. Dancing with Jack, lost in a pleasure she now realises was fleeting.

Larraín’s lighting shifts delicately between public and private registers: bright colour contrasts blend with cleverly incorporated archival footage, while intimate scenes are soft and muted. The White House becomes a hallucinatory psychological space through which Jackie wanders; and Natalie Portman moves just as effortlessly between Jackie’s worlds.

She’s mastered Jackie’s peculiar accent, making her sound steely and ironic in public, and sodden with whispery despair in private. This is a real person striving to make tough decisions, not a vapid fashion plate or the debutantish guide of the famous 1961 White House tour.

It’s an extraordinary act of historical ventriloquism that never feels phony, because it’s submerged in Jackie’s perspective.

Crafting a Legacy

The film’s central tension is between Jackie’s personal grief and her urgently felt need to stamp her husband’s presidency on posterity. Theodore White, on whom the Journalist is based, was chosen to interview Jackie because he’d gone to Harvard with Jack’s elder brother, and had written a bestselling book about the 1960 election campaign called The Making of the President, 1960, which portrayed Jack favourably. In other words, Jackie believed he would be a trustworthy crafter of the Kennedy legacy.

But as Jackie quickly assumes control of the interview, we remember that she was also a journalist before her marriage. And, as she pores over the Journalist’s draft, boldly rewriting entire passages, we can already glimpse the judicious book editor she will become.

Evoking the way this story has been drafted and redrafted, Larraín repeats motifs and moments, like ghosts of themselves. Jackie emerging twice from Air Force One: into sunshine then into misery. Jackie leading a TV crew through the White House; then getting drunk in her glamorous evening gowns and leading Larraín’s camera from room to room. The Pink Chanel Suit, pristine and then gory. The shooting itself, viewed in its ominous aftermath and, eventually, in its visceral horror. Jackie flanked by Kennedys in the pomp of state: first, queenly, at a White House music concert; then, veiled, in Jack’s funeral procession. Nancy encouraging Jackie to smile on her televised tour, then as she leaves for the last time.

But Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography shows how Jackie didn’t just experience it all; she steered history. Fontaine emphasises her perspective with tight, even oppressive framing: the camera peers over Jackie’s shoulder and under her chin, and follows one step behind her. Then it pulls back to show what she’s wrought: tableaux of state with Jackie, doll-like, at their centre.

Jackie is at war with herself. She remembers how Jack chided her White House renovations as a ‘vanity project’; but she also knows that history dwells in images, in objects, in myths. Hence her shrewd decision to tell the Journalist about Jack’s fondness for the musical Camelot — a narrative that retrospectively framed the Kennedy presidency as “one brief, shining moment” of American royalty.

There have been many JFK movies and TV series. Other actresses have portrayed Jackie. But much as “there will never be another Camelot”, we’ll never see another Jackie of Portman’s hypnotic sensitivity. Larraín’s film stakes a powerful claim to being definitive history, precisely because it’s an idiosyncratic psychodrama.

It was Jackie’s Camelot, too. Inextricable from her grief for Jack is her own loss of agency and respect, and her rage at being manipulated by Bobby, and sidelined by Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and his wife Lady Bird (Beth Grant). This, Larraín shows us, is why she so determinedly dictates the funeral arrangements. “It wasn’t for Jack, or his legacy,” Jackie realises. “It was for me.”

Jackie is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.