‘Jackie’ is a Haunting Portrait at the Intersection of Grief and Legacy

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When the movies cover the topic of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy it is typically through the lens of the loss of American innocence, the murder that opened the floodgates on the social turmoil that defined the ‘60s. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim have collaborated to view the assassination in a way that it has never been explored on the screen before – the human toll of loss that the assassination took on JFK’s wife Jaqueline Kennedy. Jackie looks at the assassination and aftermath through the widow’s eyes, which is a haunting examination of the intersection of loss and legacy that is led by a powerful performance by Natalie Portman.

In the days following the assassination and funeral of JFK, Jackie Kennedy (Portman) agrees to tell her side of the story to a journalist (Billy Crudup). The grieving widow recounts some of the more pleasant days in the White House as well as that horrible day and the painful days that followed. The happier moments involve Jackie giving a television news crew a tour of the White House, detailing the history that surrounds the Kennedys each and every night. The painful moments include the First Lady wearing the iconic pink dress with blood splattered about it as she witnesses Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carol Lynch) being sworn in as president following her husband’s murder to trying to plan the expansive funeral with the help of Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Despite all of her pain, Jackie must balance keeping up appearances for her two young children as well as the American people while she plans the funeral that she believes will secure her slain husband’s legacy.

Natalie Portman gives one of the finest performances of her illustrious career as the mourning First Lady. She captures the aristocratic Northeastern inflection of the historical figure, and conveys each and every aspect of grief in this powerful performance. The grace and dignity that we’ve come to associate with Jacqueline Kennedy is present Portman’s presence, but the actress also brings a wounded overtone to the role. In moments, Portman’s Jackie is lost as in scenes where she bears her soul to a priest (John Hurt). In other moments, she commands the screen as in moments where she makes her funeral wishes known to Bobby Kennedy or LBJ’s assistant Jack Valenti (Max Casella).

There’s an intimacy to Pablo Larraín’s direction, with much of Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography employing tight close ups of its leading lady under duress. Much like Neruda, Pablo Larraín eschews the basic tenets of the biopic in favor of examining moments in the lives of historical figures. For the most part, Jackie is unconcerned with the fateful moment that took the life of JFK, though Larraín does feature the moment in a startling detail towards the conclusion. Larraín and screenwriter Oppenheim capture the loneliness and despair of Jacqueline Kennedy in those darkest moments with emotional clarity, especially how she struggles to understand her husband’s place in history. However, sometimes the movie is a bit too on the nose, such as a moment where Jackie is drowning her sorrows with booze while listening to the soundtrack to Camelot.

Jackie is also a triumph of design, with an all-around excellent look to its costumes, makeup, sets, and production design. The film has a wonderful aesthetic that matches the elegance that Jackie Kennedy embodied with style and vibrant color. But the score by Mica Levi plays counter to that elegance with music that captures the essence of grief and despair, an unsettling score that emphasizes the film’s emotional content.

There will never be a final word on the assassination of JFK. It’s an event that has captured the attention of the American people for over 50 years and is a moment that echoes through American history. Jackie examines the events and the aftermath through the eyes of grief of Jackie Kennedy. Natalie Portman’s performance, the assured direction of Pablo Larraín, and the haunting music of Mica Levi will endure as a tragic portrait of that America in transition through the perspective of a mourning First Lady.

  • Overall Score


Led by a powerful performance by Natalie Portman, Jackie is a haunting portrait of the grief and despair that Jackie Kennedy felt in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

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