By John H. Foote
Well aware of her talent as an actress, I was still not prepared for the staggering perfection of Natalie Portman’s performance as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie. Portman, it seemed to me, did more than merely act the role but rather slipped under the skin to acquaint herself with the very soul of Jackie Kennedy, perhaps the most beloved and famous First Lady in the history of that office.
The film explores Mrs. Kennedy’s life in the immediate minutes, hours, days and weeks after the assassination of her husband, the President John F. Kennedy. Brief flashbacks show the two interacting, but the bulk of the film is after the President was shot.
Portman brought a bleak sense of dignity to Jackie, struggling to maintain her composure as she stood, famously in her pink outfit, covered in the blood and brains of her husband as another man was sworn in as President. She hears everything within earshot, including new President Johnson stating where she goes, he would be. Beyond the inner circle of the President, it seemed as though the entire nation wrapped its arms around Mrs. Kennedy as she attempted to do right by her husband and mourn him with her children and in laws.
In a dazzling performance, Portman brings to life the mystery of who Jackie was, capturing that high pitched whisper of a voice and delicate China doll presence, which served to mask extraordinary inner strength and a steely resolve. She fights for, and gets, every aspect of her husband’s funeral she believes he deserves. Knowing the nation mourns with her, it is as if she invited them to be close with her, to mourn with her. The scenes with her children are heartbreaking, as Caroline knows her father is gone but little John seems oblivious despite that famous salute.
Watching the film, Portman managed to both enchant and stun me with the authenticity of her performance while capturing that sense of despair and terror Jackie must have felt riding in the limo, her husband’s shattered head in her lap. Though no one could know what she was possibly thinking during that time, the actress allows us a glimpse into what she might have felt. She climbed onto the back of the car not to escape, but to retrieve pieces of skull and brain, and was aware of the imminent danger she too was in. Terrified, understandably so, she still had the sense to call the Secret Service agent who placed himself between she and any further bullets fired.
Portman brings to Kennedy a subtle sense of dignity and grace, of a woman who has experienced a shattered dream of what was hailed as Camelot. And yet in scenes months after the assassination, while being interviewed for a major news magazine she demonstrates the absolute control she exerts over President Kennedy’s legacy, and of course, her own. In the beautifully recreated scenes from a TV special shot inside the White House she is a perfect tour guide, aware of the history, charming, a fine host. Later when being interviewed she is guarded, but never afraid, very aware America is forever watching her, they always would be watching for clues as how to react. And that difference is a magnificent character arc, because Portman fearlessly shows us who Jackie was on the worst day of her life, and how it caused her to become stronger than even she could possibly imagine.
Portman was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress and absolutely should have won, but was bested by Emma Stone in La La Land (2016). I get it but have never agreed. That immensely talented little girl we first encountered in Leon – The Professional (1994) has evolved into one of the finest actresses of her time, and incredibly despite her Oscar for Black Swan (2010) continues to evolve as she spreads her wings.
Portman did not portray Jackie Kennedy, she was Jackie.
One of the most astonishing performances of the last 50 years of cinema.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.