Jackie
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard
Rated R for brief strong violence and some language
1 hr. 40 min.

Anyone past or approaching their sixth decade can either tell you what they were doing when they heard John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, or how the shock affected their parents over the days that followed. That act of violence in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, has had ramifications for our country that linger over half a century later.

It would not be hyperbolic to say that, in her grief, the first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, age 34, in the wake of this trauma, conducted herself, before millions watching on television, with determination, dignity and grace that journalists then and historians now say served as ballast for a distraught nation. This is the heart of Jackie, a film already given three Critics’ Choice Awards (for Best Actress, Costume Design and Hair and Makeup). Natalie Portman, every inch as striking as Mrs. Kennedy was, has just garnered Best Actress nominations for the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards; an Oscar nod will probably follow. She gives a remarkable performance. Her ability to portray Jackie’s breathy vocal qualities, her elegance and sarcasm, in equal parts, is uncanny. At no time is imitation apparent. She becomes Jackie from the first frame. In stylistic contrast, co-star Peter Sarsgaard plays JFK’s grieving brother Bobby without attempting RFK’s trademark Kennedy accent — a choice that enhances rather than detracts from the character’s impact.

Writer Noah Oppenheim labored for three decades to find a buyer for his script, depicting Jackie’s plight and stoicism in those hours and days following the assassination. Chilean director Pablo Larraín (also Golden Globe-nominated for Neruda) took on the task with the relish of an illustrator. His emphasis is on the inner workings of Mrs. Kennedy, and her dedication to finding beauty in life. According to Oppenheim, Larraín urged the writer to flesh out the characters more and more, and it worked. This is an artistic film that goes to meticulous lengths to recreate the Kennedy White House in all its decorative glory. Sets were constructed in Paris at the direction of production designer Jean Rabasse (Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children), and scenes were filmed there on the heels of a modern-day tragedy, the terrorist shootings of November 2015.

Jackie’s story is told via flashback, as a reporter (Billy Crudup) interviews Jackie at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. We revisit her 1962 tour of the White House with CBS’s Charles Collingwood, reproduced with actors and actual footage. Portman’s take on Mrs. Kennedy is so spot-on, you’d think she was lip-synching. Interspersed are the horrifying events in Dallas and the following days of shock, grief and grit, with a somber, sonorous soundtrack, much like the music played over the TV and radio that weekend.

Jackie touches on the subject of JFK’s womanizing with sensitivity, but brace yourself for the scene of the assassination itself. Upon reflection, it had to be presented in visceral detail, lest you not be left to wonder how Jackie kept up such a brave face. It’s in the depiction of her inner turmoil that we see her teeth set, and her fist come down behind the scenes. Her children were to be protected, her husband’s place in history was to be etched, and she was not to be trifled with. Natalie Portman, already an Oscar winner for a wholly different kind of character in Black Swan, has to do nothing more to persuade anyone she’s beyond roles in Thor and other projects that may not be worthy of her talent. See her face in one scene, through the windowpane of her limo, headed to the Capitol, as it reflects the gathered crowds on the streets of Washington. It’s devastation, cut into glass. Or her return to the White House, blood-stained and dazed.

This is as great a dramatization of Jacqueline Kennedy’s ordeal as there can be . . . and it’s outstanding. You can’t leave the theater without noting the silence of the audience, and the mist that may be clouding your own eyes.