Natalie Portman gives one of the finest performances I have ever seen in the heartbreaking, historic “Jackie.” After the acclaim at Venice and Toronto, the New York Film Festival crammed it into their crowded schedule as a Special Event and I’m grateful they did.
With forthright simplicity, “Jackie” is powerful beyond belief. It hit me so profoundly, by the end I could barely walk or stand up, my glasses stained with tears.
Chilean director Pablo Lorrain, who also has “Neruda” at the NYFF this year, takes us back to the days before and immediately following after the terrible tragedy of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Lorrain doesn’t intend to let us off the hook easy. Nor does Natalie Portman.
The film is entirely focused on Jacqueline Kennedy. We see and hear everything from her point of view, whether we want to or not. Noah Oppenheim, who won the prize for Best Screenplay in Venice, fills in the blanks of those fateful days quite completely with a story that is all too familiar to every American. We may think we know it, but we don’t.
Jackie is interviewed by a journalist (Billy Crudup) who is simply called “The Reporter.” Jackie bluntly asks him if he “wants to know what the bullet sounded like when it hit Jack’s head.” The reporter demurs, but continues his blunt questions. Jackie answers them just as bluntly. It’s surreal to see them so composed, tranquil, but adversarial, months after the assassination.
The horrific centerpiece of the film is that bloody event. “I didn’t know what has happening. I could’ve protected him.” But of course, she couldn’t have. Lorrain puts us in the car beside Jackie as she tries to “hold Jack’s head together.” She describes his brains, which lay in the lap of the pink Chanel suit she so famously wore. “They were pink, not white.”
Lorrain never flinches from showing us these horrifying images, though he doesn’t dwell on them. But he keeps returning to that moment. As he must, as we all must.
We witness Jackie’s incredible strength and resilience as she tries to maintain composure. She takes charge of official obligations and gracefully handles details of making funeral arrangements — which seems, in the state she was in, a super-human feat.
Portman fulfills every expectation, then goes beyond, as she nails every precise emotion imaginable in this unimaginable tragedy. She never loses her grasp on Jackie’s renowned poise, refinement and her perfectly inflected voice. And she never shies away from the horrors she is called upon to witness. I cannot praise her enough. She was astonishing. Revealing depths that one could never guess that she possessed, her performance is one for the ages, certain to land her another Oscar nomination.
Peter Sarsgaard, who has never been Oscar-nominated for any of the fine film work he’s done till now, may finally get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his tremendous portrayal of the slain president’s younger brother Bobby — himself destined to be gunned down just five years later. He carries an aura of prescient doom on his broad shoulders.
Sarsgaard’s Robert Kennedy is a steely tower of strength for the bereft Jackie. The two of them here do the finest work of their careers.
Greta Gerwig is also on hand, blending seamlessly into the remarkable supporting role of Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s personal assistant. Sarsgaard and Gerwig portray an effective protective flank around the ready-to-crumble Jackie. As a devout Catholic, Jackie faith is shaken by her husband’s brutal murder, and she turns to an Irish priest, John Hurt, for solace. In scene after scene we see how a small intimate circle helped keep the nation’s First Family from falling apart.
Some may object that Jackie is shown chain smoking, but in real life she did. She was just never photographed with a cigarette. There’s also a brief sequence of the widow trying to numb her pain with pills and alcohol, listening to Richard Burton singing “Camelot.” But any resistance to these entirely plausible moments of frailty will dissolve in heartbreaking compassion when Jackie has to explain to little Caroline and John-John that the father that they loved is never coming back.
If we ever needed more proof, “Jackie” shows Jacqukine Kenndy to be just as human as you or I, and also one of the greatest of American heroines.
I’m still shaking from this film, hours later. And of course, none of us can avoid being reminded where we were that November when we heard the terrible news. I was in gym class, changing in a locker room. School let out immediately, and I rode home by bus across the Bronx, overcome with immense sadness. Two African-Americans, a man and a woman, rode the same bus that afternoon. I recall the man saying simply, “They shot him.”
“Jackie” will bring you to tears, and then bring applause for the artistry of all involved.