The FIRST LADY’S tragedy

95 min. | R

“Jackie” takes place in the days after Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963. To her the time was inscrutably painful, dealing with not just the loss of her spouse and the father of her children, but also funeral arrangements and the establishment of her husband’s legacy.

The movie’s content pivots on an interview Jackie (Natalie Portman, nominated for an Oscar in this role) gives to a journalist (Billy Crudup) at her Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, home, loosely inspired by a real interview she gave to “Life” magazine’s Theodore H. White. Flashbacks show her giving a tour of the White House in 1961, and are intercut with her actions immediately following the assassination, including what it was like at the hospital, on Air Force One coming home, and telling her children their father is dead. With White sympathetic and accommodating of her desires, Jackie reveals enough trauma to get him to trust her (“I tried to hold his head together,” she says), and then skillfully frames her husband’s  “Camelot” legacy. A cynic might say coercing the journalist was a brilliant piece of manipulation, whereas an optimist (or sentimentalist?) will believe this was born out of the grieving emotion of a heartbroken widow.

As portrayed here, the most difficult task Jackie Kennedy took on prior to this was renovating the White House. Now her world is upside down, and in spite of her searing heartbreak she’s still exposed to the public eye and political maneuvering – clearly not everyone has her best interests at heart. One of the best things about director Pablo Larrain’s (“No”) film is its curiosity: Larrain wants to show us who Jackie was, and how she dealt with all aspects of the assassination aftermath. It answers many of the questions we’ve naturally had for the past 50-plus years, and is endlessly intriguing because of it.

That said, it’s tough to say how much of “Jackie” is true. Noah Oppenheim (“Allegiant”) wrote an original screenplay for what we see here, meaning it’s not adapted from previously published material (Crudup’s character is credited as “The Journalist,” not White). Furthermore, the film’s press notes do not reveal a source for the script. A cursory Internet search reveals Oppenheim extensively researched archival materials and footage from this period, which means at least the broad strokes are true, if not entirely accurate. For example, it’s known that Jackie asked for books about Abraham Lincoln’s funeral from the Library of Congress, and this is consistent with what’s in the film. But there are also scenes in which Jackie speaks with a priest (John Hurt), and there are no records that indicate this conversation occurred, nor is there a way to know what Jackie may have said to Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) in private as they both grieved.

Portman is superb in capturing Jackie’s walk, talk and essence. Take particular note of the way Portman conveys Jackie’s vulnerability and strength, and how even in the hardest of times she had the conviction to fight for what she believed was the right way for her husband to be remembered.

     Like its title character, “Jackie” is a bit scattered, and struggles to add up to more than a series of intriguing insights about an heiress. For many, including me, Portman’s performance and this intrigue will be enough.