“A First Lady must always be ready to pack her bags.”
It is almost taken as a fact in the realm of modern cinema that Natalie Portman is one of Hollywood’s most talented actors. An Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe award-winner for various projects, Black Swan in particular, Portman has been a part of the American cinematic landscape since the age of 13, when she starred in Luc Besson’s multiple award-winning action-thriller Léon/The Professional, alongside Jean Reno and Gary Oldman. Her list of critically-acclaimed and culturally relevant films is extensive, including Mars Attacks!, the Star Wars prequels, V For Vendetta, Closer, Marvel’s Thor and, of course, Black Swan.
It is important to bring up this body of work as for, many other modern actors, the performance in Jackie would be a career-making moment. For Natalie Portman, however; it looks to solidify her status as one of the all-time great actors of American cinema.
Directed by Pablo Larraín (No, El Club), who is widely regarded as one of Chilé’s greatest directors; Jackie tells the story of Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy – not yet Onassis – in the days leading up to and following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America. The film is framed by her interview for Life magazine, which was recorded a few days following JFK’s funeral, at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port with the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Theodore H. White, played by a compassionate yet skeptical Billy Crudup. These scenes were, for me, the most interesting; with Crudup’s White attempting to extract the full and complete truth of the events from the former First Lady, while Portman’s Kennedy remains guarded and cautious, her intention to ensure her late husband’s Presidency is framed in a glowingly positive light driving her throughout the conversation. Kennedy had made it clear she would be editing the interview and, at various points when she does allow her guard to drop and presents the true, bare facts of the events as they happened, tells White quite plainly that he won’t be allowed to publish the words. It is a game of cat and mouse that demonstrates Kennedy’s strength, even in her moments of weakness, and Portman handles the delicate balance of her outer strength and inner turmoil tremendously.
When we aren’t at Hyannis Port, we are taken to various locales and moments in history through Kennedy’s time as First Lady; starting with the historic White House tour, broadcast on CBS in 1961. Larraín uses this tour to set an interesting approach to scene setting; mixing footage of the actual tour with recreations using Portman. The voice of CBS’ Charles Collingwood, who presented the program along with the First Lady, is retained for the film; and Portman responds directly with Kennedy’s answers. Comparing these scenes with the actual tour footage (which is available on Youtube) demonstrates just how perfectly Portman was able to portray not only Kennedy’s distinctive voice; her interesting, regionless accent and deep, breathy delivery being key to the portrayal; but also her mannerisms while being seen in public. For those not familiar with Kennedy’s voice this could be initially distracting and potentially irritating to listen to, as it is a huge departure from Portman’s natural voice; but it adds an incredible dimension to her portrayal that is further elevated by the film’s hair and make-up team, led by Catherine Leblanc and Debi Young. The design team as a whole has done an incredible job in recreating the style and look of the early sixties; in particular the recreation of Jackie Kennedy’s beautiful array of suits and dresses, and the outfits of the two Kennedy children.
When we get into the grit of the assassination and the events leading up to the funeral, Larraín’s skill with building anticipation through emotional and physical reveals directly compliments Portman’s performance. In particular; the scenes following Kennedy when she returns to the White House residence in the hours following the assassination and the pronouncement of JFK’s death, are stunning; with Portman’s display of the complex emotional response resonating perfectly through Larraín’s framing; the reality of the First Lady’s blood-stained Chanel suit being fully revealed for the first time as she finally begins to remove it.
Of course, Portman is not the only actor in this film, and the supporting cast is tremendous. Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of Robert F. Kennedy is sublime; his depiction of the then-Attorney General’s own distinctive voice and physical mannerisms being just as powerful and memorable as Portman’s First Lady. Bobby’s turmoil between trying to ensure that Jackie’s wishes following the assassination are met, and between ensuring that their memorial for JFK doesn’t result in further incidents with foreign dignitaries, results in a number of powerful scenes with Portman as each of their characters’ complex mix of grief, vanity and public duty collide, both for better and for worse.
Greta Gerwig, who is practically unrecognisable as Nancy Tuckerman; the White House Social Secretary during the Kennedy administration, puts in an incredible performance. Tuckerman was friends with Jackie as children; and was a bridesmaid at her wedding to JFK; and Gerwig’s portrayal captures both Tuckerman’s love for her long-time friend, and her responsibilities as a part of the administration. The fact she has received no nominations for Best Supporting Actress for this role is a huge surprise to me; as her warmth and care for the First Lady both before and after the assassination is demonstrated so naturally and is the centre of a number of important moments for the protagonist as the film progresses.
A few of the smaller roles deserve recognition, both for how they are acted and for their inclusion I the film. The late John Hurt’s portrayal of a priest who gives private council to Jackie Kennedy is tender and caring; but surprising in a number of respects. These moments are used to give us an insight into Kennedy’s true emotions surrounding her husband’s death, played in parallel to the considered and stoic interview with White. The moment Jackie meets Special Agent Clint Hill for the first time is a lovely nod to a key moment in the story of the assassination. After the first shot was fired, Hill was the secret service agent who leapt onto the back of the Kennedy’s car; in order to shield the stricken President and First Lady from any attempts at a second shot. The poignant image of him hanging onto the back of the open-top car as it races to the Dallas Hospital is shown a number of times; and contributes to the most stomach churning moment of the piece.
Larraín is well known for his brutally honest depictions and set-pieces in his films; and this is no different with Jackie. The BBFC rating notes “brief strong violence” in its 15 rating, and I don’t think I’d be spoiling the film for anyone if I noted which moment it is referencing. It is this challenging moment in history which truly stands out in the film, and Portman’s recreation of Jackie Kennedy’s movements in the immediate moments after the shots rang out in Dallas are striking. This moment from this film deserves to be remembered; the most unabashed and realistic recreation of that moment that I personally have seen in cinema. That is not to undersell the rest of the film and, as mentioned earlier with Jackie’s return to the White House, Larraín’s construction of scenes of the solo First Lady in her times of grief and struggles with her own emotional complexity lead to numerous profound moments in the overall story.
Having seen the film, I’m surprised that it only garnered 3 Academy Award nominations. With strong direction and powerful performances across the board, Jackie feels like an important moment in the creation of historical cinema; a turning point in the generation of fictional accounts of real people, informed by accurate accounts of the real events. And, perhaps most importantly; it places Natalie Portman into the list of great American actors who will be remembered for a stunning portrayal of important historical figures in a truly realistic way.
Written by Dave McGuckin