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'Jackie' is a mesmerizing, intimate look at the woman who put a face on an American tragedy 

A serious look at any historical event has to deal with two realities: the reality of what actually happened and the reality of the surrounding culture’s perception of that event. Jackie, the new film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, focuses on the interplay between those two forces in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from the perspective of his widow, Jackie. Larraín frees Jackie from the constraints of a traditional rise-to-fame biopic by focusing on the immediate aftermath of the assassination, subtly making the case that these are the most significant days in Jackie Kennedy’s life – and, ultimately, the most significant days for JFK’s legacy also.

The success of any biopic rests squarely on the shoulders of the actor playing the subject, and Natalie Portman harnesses every bit of the strength and fragility she displayed in her Oscar-winning role in 2010’s Black Swan (directed by Jackie producer Darren Aronofsky) to astounding effect. Portman takes the pain of a woman whose husband is brutally murdered right on top of her – and who then, while a bundle of raw, grieving nerves, has to navigate a sea of political protocol and well-meaning but dismissive politicians – and elevates it with flashes of iron determination and cunning. Larraín’s camera stays almost uncomfortably close to Jackie in scene after scene as she boards Air Force One, as she recalls what the bullet hitting her husband’s skull sounded like, as she pulls the bloodstained stockings from her legs upon returning to the White House.

In the limousine from Bethesda Naval Hospital, where JFK’s autopsy was performed, with her husband’s blood still smeared across her pink Chanel suit, Jackie asks the driver if he knows who James Garfield or William McKinley were. When he responds negatively, she asks if he knows who Abraham Lincoln was. “He won the Civil War,” he replies. Jackie immediately asks an aide for everything on Lincoln’s funeral. Far from the surface image of Jackie Kennedy as stylish fashionplate arm candy that history has boiled her down to, Portman’s Jackie is a woman who finds her power in tragedy, angling to secure her husband’s legacy.

And the establishment of that legacy becomes both plot and theme for Jackie. Though President Kennedy enjoyed high approval ratings at the time of his death, his list of things he and his administration hoped to accomplish far outnumbered the things they had actually accomplished. Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother and Attorney General – played well by Peter Sarsgaard, despite the lack of physical resemblance – laments in a private moment with the widowed first lady that Kennedy might be remembered for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or he might be remembered for bungling diplomatic relations with Cuba and the USSR so badly that he created the Missile Crisis in the first place.

So as Jackie secures a lavish funeral procession, despite the objections of concerned parties like Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s aide Jack Valenti (Max Casella, Doogie Howser, M.D., The Sopranos), she begins establishing the idea of President Kennedy, Great President. Meanwhile, director Larraín seems to be establishing – or re-establishing – the idea of Jackie Kennedy, Great First Lady. A framing device is used in which an unnamed reporter played by Billy Crudup – clearly inspired by Life’s Theodore White – visits Jackie Kennedy at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, in the days after the funeral for an interview. That article famously includes Jackie referring to the president’s favorite record, the soundtrack to the musical Camelot, establishing the idea of the Kennedy administration as something more than just another term in the White House.

It’s a gesture that Larraín depicts as borne out of the love of a bereft widow, though executed deliberately by a very capable woman. And that’s the lasting impression that Jackie gives us of the first lady. How “true” it is can and will be argued, though one of Jackie’s lines in the last act of the movie can be viewed as a bit on-the-nose as far as the film’s intention: “I believe that the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men [and women] who stand beside us.”

4 out of 5 stars

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