There are days that permanently alter the course of history. Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was brutally assassinated, was one of them. It was an older generation’s 9/11, the kind of infamy where people remember where they were when they first heard about it. Kennedy’s violent demise left behind a grieving nation and a 34-year-old widow with two young children. In a spectacular English-language cinematic debut, Chilean director Pablo Larrain, and Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman focus on that grieving widow, first lady Jackie Kennedy, in the aftermath of such a painful cultural trauma.
One week after John F. Kennedy’s funeral, Life magazine journalist Theodore H. White travels to Port Hyannis, Massachusetts, to interview the former first lady. Though the assassination’s gory details remain raw in everyone’s mind, Jackie Kennedy, as she prefers to be called now, opens up on her own terms about that fateful day and the days afterward, when the public had its eyes on her. As she planned the funeral arrangements, protected her children and confided in her closest allies, she knew every one of her actions would determine her late husband’s legacy.
In a spectacularly strong performance that might earn her a second Oscar, Natalie Portman grippingly conveys the pressure cooker-level turmoil that Jackie Kennedy was under, internally and externally. While the media captured that haunting image of the first lady wearing black and a veil at the funeral, Portman and company reveal that, behind the scenes, Jackie Kennedy, tormented by the memory of that bullet’s carnage, fought hard to give JFK a send-off for the ages. Using an incisively well-rounded script by Noah Oppeneheim, with its perfect balance of Jackie Kennedy’s sophistically poised public image and fiery private self, Portman shows how gutsy Jackie was for her time. Jackie Kennedy took charge in telling her husband’s story and went to great lengths to ensure that a beautiful portrait be constructed. In capturing Jackie’s iconic physicality, from her voice to her walk, Portman conveys the extent of her research on such a powerhouse first lady. In the iconic Jackie wardrobe, she looks like a queen, fitting for a first lady who coined the term “Camelot” for her family’s time in the White House.
Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine shoots the film with an almost classic Hollywood Technicolor palette. Whether bright or drab, all the colors stand out, creating the nostalgic feel of both a time gone by and a beautiful fairy tale that never got a happily ever after. Mica Levi’s strings-oriented score somberly sets the mood from the get-go, giving the feel of how trajectory-changing a moment that November day was, an impact still felt over 50 years later. The score also utilizes two songs from the 1960 “Camelot” cast recording, a dear favorite of the couple. The bittersweet inclusion pushes home the feeling that a class of style like the Kennedys can never be returned to or reproduced.
“There won’t be another Camelot,” Jackie Kennedy tells White during their interview, “Not another Camelot.”
The Kennedys’ White House stay lasted only 2 years, 10 months and 2 days. But, with those words, “Jackie” picks up the pieces and writes the story of a dazzling but cruelly destroyed kingdom for future generations, for whom it’s just a story in a book.