“When something’s written down—does that make it true?”
It’s rather intriguing how we feel we know our presidents. They represent us as a leader of the free world and we in turn love them enough to mourn their passing even when it’s decades after their run in the Oval Office ceased. But what is it that we really know? We only see what they allow. We see the aftermath of important moments—good and bad—but not the decisions themselves. Everything that we know without reading a book comes from what they’ve let the media capture. It’s a façade: a show of strength, compassion, leadership, humanity, and maybe every once in a while idiocy too. Those books do the same to immortalize legacies time ultimately cements. Private life and private struggles are therefore often left unseen.
This isn’t just the plight of presidents, but all people of note who have put themselves in the public sector to be judged. Today’s world exacerbates that judging aspect as laypeople all over the Earth have access to a soapbox to air their grievances whether or not there’s credence to them, but the past wasn’t so far behind. The difference arrives in how history was protected and who was granted the power to erect the sanctuary or gallows for which each hero or villain must reside. If you’re not careful now you could easily find hearsay and fiction passed off for fact as salaciousness and rumor attracts more than truth ever could. Before the internet, though, standards dictated who earned access and therefore proved worthy to create reality.
Because that’s what a historian does. He/she collects first-hand accounts and artifacts as best as possible to craft a truth. Depending on what access is afforded, that truth will often be incomplete yet hailed as definitive. For someone like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, this truth can be warped in so many ways because of a public perception that’s always inherently insufficient. She was the pretty debutante of the young, handsome president who spent taxpayer money on White House interior decorating and helped throw parties to infuse an excitement the Capital had never seen before. Ask certain people and they’ll tell you she was hollow—the beauty on John F. Kennedy’s arm, himself a man cut down early with only the blight of almost sparking WWIII to his name.
As Pablo Larraín‘s Jackie proves, however, she held hidden depths of intellect and strength making her so much more. She also possessed the confidence and power to wield both outside of the public eye to retain the graceful image America demanded. Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim beautifully juxtaposes this duality by showcasing an early filmed tour of her White House alterations with her poised, smiling, and polite hostess against the sharp, never resting mind of a grieving widow rising to the occasion of spearheading the preservation of her husband’s legacy as well as her own dignity alongside that of office and nation with a brazen display of courage when everyone else sought to hide in fear. Jackie galvanized a country by embodying one of its greatest traits: resilience.
You can argue this image is as real as the other if not for two interviews indisputably exposing one to be far more genuine. Where preconceived notions and traditional patriarchal thinking cultivated that first projection from external sources, concrete evidence provided the second from within. Oppenheim uses a Life article written by Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) as his frame, the interview conducted in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts supplying Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) the freedom to describe what happened from assassination until funeral. Couple this with the extensive account of JFK’s presidency as told to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. only released on cassette upon her death and you see a woman who meticulously measured her persona to fulfill her role while never compromising her inspiring individuality.
These interviews were part of this as the official account of that day she held her husband’s lifeless body became hers to own. As did the coming days when she was forced to cope with the tragedy as a widow, a mother of two young children, and a First Lady abruptly being thrown out of her home so the next family could replace her (John Carroll Lynch‘s Lyndon and Beth Grant‘s Lady Bird Johnson). Oppenheim provides us a glimpse at her adrenaline-fueled decisions away from the cameras: her emotional fights with brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), frustrating sparring matches with LBJ’s special assistant Jack Valenti (Max Casella), and sadness opposite friend Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant) and Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Portman fearlessly projects Jackie’s fiery determination.
That fire is on display opposite White’s reporter in as far as her imposing strict guidelines towards which of her words can be used in the article; opposite Bobby in his portrayal as an angry politician believing all the hard work he and John started would be for naught; opposite Washington DC in her decision to walk with her husband’s coffin without cover; and opposite the world by refusing to change out of her blood-stained clothing the day he was killed. Portman’s tenacity in these moments is breathtaking, Jackie’s position to never show weakness a testament to the person she was that America might not have known without this nightmare. She lets the tears come, but only for brief moments before steeling herself up once more.
And Larraín takes Oppenheim’s script to Terrence Malick lengths of visual lyricism. When we aren’t watching Jackie and White verbally wrestle each other about the definition of truth and honesty, we’re transported back to the ballet of a regal Camelot and the uncontrollable circus of that world’s implosion. These snippets infer upon Jackie’s emotional state in the interview, recalling contextually relevant details for the profile White hopes to deliver his readers. Facts are uncovered like Kennedy saying how the funds she used for sprucing up the White House weren’t public as well as real threats coming down the pipeline for which she blatantly ignored to ensure her husband had a send-off to rival Abraham Lincoln’s. The camera gives these moments permanence while Portman assures their uncensored dramatic complexity.
Mica Levi‘s score and Stéphane Fontaine‘s cinematography afford Larraín and editor Sebastián Sepúlveda the room to build on feeling rather than dialogue. The constant inclusion of that White House tour is no coincidence—it ensures we see the difference between Jackie the fashion statement and Jackie the First Lady embodying the power necessary for the nation to retain its strength and erase its apparent vulnerabilities. This film goes beyond merely supplying a unique perspective on an infamous event and further too than Jackie Kennedy herself. It’s first and foremost a depiction of death and the decisions those in pain are forced to make soon after. It’s about grace under impossible circumstances and the reality that history is shaped by memories. In her worst moment, Jackie reminded us who we were.
 Natalie Portman as “Jackie Kennedy” in JACKIE. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Billy Crudup as “The Journalist” and Natalie Portman as “Jackie Kennedy” in JACKIE. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Natalie Portman as “Jackie Kennedy” in JACKIE. Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved