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Natalie Portman’s ‘Jackie’ delves past the image, and into the person

The depth and range of Natalie Portman’s portrayal of our nation’s 35th First Lady will likely carry Jackie to the Oscars this winter. Introverts rarely get their due on screen because reserved folks with active minds are hard both to write and play. This biopic accomplishes the feat and also manages to deliver a respectable meditation on whether fiction can overwrite fact in the collective memory. When taken from out of President Kennedy’s charismatic shadow, Natalie Portman’s Jackie proves to be a dynamic force in her own right.

A post-Dallas interview between Jackie and Life journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup) frames the film’s narrative. The beginning establishes the widow’s concern over her late husband’s legacy with a red-eyed Jackie demanding final approval over the resulting article before White has even stepped into the Hyannis Port mansion. But more than just a high-minded focus on shaping history, Jackie follows a woman experiencing some of the greatest trauma imaginable and being forced to process her suffering in the public eye.

Jackie plans a grand funeral procession meant to echo the last great assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln. With a fortitude that would surprise many, Jackie argues with press liaison Jack Valenti (Max Casella) to ensure her vision is fully realized. Jackie’s righteous anger comes only after a period of intense shock where she voices, at times incoherently and awkwardly, some of the many thoughts racing in her head. Portman effectively captures grief’s swirling pain, confusion and anger, in one instance blurting out morbid questions to a secret service agent who rushed to the President’s aid in Dallas.

Each such scene expands on the poised, East Coast deb image we associate with Jackie. Of course the film hits that note by including snippets of Portman recreating the First Lady’s popular televised special “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” done in 1962. Director Pablo Larraín doesn’t dwell here, providing these moments more to contrast with Jackie recounting to White how she tried to hold President Kennedy’s head together after the bullet ripped through.

The film cuts often between time periods, thankfully eschewing much of the JFK story most Americans know by heart, for the more stirring, personal moments. Larraín’s stark style alternates between shots hovering close on the face and wide shots reminiscent of paintings by Edward Hopper, where several people occupy the same frame but no one really connects. Still Natalie Portman’s expressive face always serves as the focal point. Everyone in this production knew the money was in the acting and the film’s form reflects this.

Without Portman’s commitment to nailing the finishing school effect and immense research into Jackie’s private demeanor, this movie would be a trying-too-hard bore. As it is though, it’s hard not to connect with Jackie when she tells John Jr. and Caroline about their dad’s passing without having fully absorbed the news herself. Jackie’s private discussion with Father Richard McSorley (a sincere John Hurt) addresses her depression and search for meaning in the wake of trauma without settling into well-worn clichés. Portman delivers the range of emotion needed to make the audience connect with the First Lady as a person, not her closed-off the public image. Initially Jackie was to be an HBO miniseries starring Rachel Weisz in the title role with Darren Aronofsky directing. This is clearly the better iteration.

Natalie Portman herself said before preparing for the role, that she had only a “superficial understanding of her as a fashion plate.” There’s only a passing mention of the fashion that would come to define Jackie, in a quick, non-speaking scene where Jackie looks out to see a department store stocking suits akin to the pink Chanel number from Dallas. We get that part.

What writer Noah Oppenheim, Larraín, Portman and a strong supporting cast make evident is that Jackie, perhaps more than JFK, was responsible for the nation’s continuing fascination with the couple more than 50 years later. President Kennedy made a lot of mistakes, as Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) privately admits in the film. In the midst of deep suffering, it was Jackie who helped establish the enduring image of the President as a brazen American hero. Jackie’s motivation for doing so, and her qualms with the discrepancy between image and the truth, are the meat of this movie. Regardless, the end result is both intriguing and emotionally wrought — like the former First Lady herself.