How many American public figures have been as studiously private, as enigmatic, as Jacqueline Kennedy?
Our collective minds have been permanently etched by iconic imagery that reveals little below her cool, mannequin surface. She is remembered as the demure 33-year-old hostess of 1962's televised "Tour of the White House," the blood-spattered widow in news photos of John Kennedy's assassination the following year and the veiled widow in mourning dress at his solemn state funeral.
We have seen her again and again without knowing her. Now Natalie Portman, director Pablo Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim portray the mystery woman's measure with a novelist's sense of psychological nuance in "Jackie."
They have accomplished a minor miracle, rendering an uncompromised artistic vision that puts documented and imagined history believably on the screen. It presents the well-established story of the days before and after the assassination with singularity of vision, mature mastery of the medium and near-reckless courage in exploring issues still too painful for some to confront. Hauntingly scored by composer Mica Levi, it is a dark, deeply sad, nearly perfect communing with her spirit.
The film is framed around an interview Jackie gives a journalist (Billy Crudup) at the Kennedy family's Hyannis Port, Mass., compound a week after the assassination. She has agreed to the conversation to begin shaping the late president's public mythology. The writer probes her guarded remarks, trying to dig deeper into her head.
From there the film flashes back to memories. We see her formal Washington life. Her seven-minute drive to the Dallas hospital with her husband's shattered head on her lap. The political power struggles occurring around her as she oversaw her family's belongings packed in shipping containers to move to their homestead. Her tender explanation to her children what has become of Daddy.
"Nothing's ever mine," she says, "not to keep." Jackie is savaged by fate before our eyes. We not only see it, we see what it means to experience it. Seeking guidance from her priest, played with suitable wisdom by John Hurt, she confesses that she considered suicide.
This is a movie about power, and its spectacle is that of a woman almost losing all of it. Larrain portrays all of this with the appropriate degree of horror and sorrow. He's too compassionate to milk it for sensationalism.
When making a movie set in the recent past, you're doomed if it lacks realism. And "Jackie" is remarkably credible. Danish actor Caspar Phillipson as JFK and John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon Johnson capture their characters' images and body language with relative precision. As Robert Kennedy and Jackie's aide and friend Nancy Tuckerman, Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig are deeply committed.
Portman's performance and appearance are almost flawless. Both her mouth and the nose are a trifle too large, but she burrows into Jackie's emotional life flawlessly. She perfectly echoes Jackie's lithe body, wide eyes, pale ivory skin, the polite laugh she seems to deliver from her front teeth and a gaze that seems to come from some private world too secret to be spoken of.
Larrain films her in tight close-ups that reveal everything about the character's unspoken interior struggles. The role demands a lot of Portman: youthful composure, its instant disintegration in crisis, and her masterful control as a mythmaker for her husband's historic legacy.
It is not the sort of comforting biographical sketch that we are conditioned to expect in movies about recent history. The filmmakers have created a view of the past informing us not through its characters but with them — in visceral sensations of anguish, personal struggle, grace, restraint and eruptions of uncontrolled, passionate anger.
Much of the credit belongs to Larrain, a Chilean native whose homeland has experienced its share of political bloodshed and upheaval. Detailed, magnetic and disturbing, "Jackie" is an austere epic, but an epic it surely is.