Pablo Larraín's Jackie is an elegy to two slandered traits: self-consciousness and superficiality. We used them synonymously as meaning "weak" or "slick." But to Jackie Kennedy, they were virtues — or weapons against the vulgar. For Jackie, self-consciousness meant she was aware that the world looked to her family to represent America. Superficiality satisfied their prying eyes. She could charm the planet with poise, present the royal Yankee family they wanted to adore. She weaponized her smile. Everything else, everything painful, was only for her.
Today, our celebrities are supposed to be raw and real, just like us. Even ugliness is spun as saintly if it's sincere. But Jackie Kennedy would consider angry 3 a.m. tweets a sign of spinelessness. Don't expose your belly. Armor your shell. Sure, she could be catty; she once snipped that USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev's daughter-in-law "looked like some Wehrmacht blonde who ran a concentration camp." But she kept the private private.
Jackie would approve that Natalie Portman, who plays her in Larraín's chronicle of her tumultuous three years living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, shuns Twitter. The two brunette beauties are twin images of each other. Both focus on the external and have been over-rewarded for it. Portman is more comfortable representing an idea than a human; she plays simulacrums of people, mostly perfect women, or male directors' fantasies of perfect women or of women shattering under the pressure to be perfect. The latter is how she won her Oscar for Black Swan, though what voters mistook for a blood-pumping breakdown was really her almost alien dissection of what a breakdown would look like if she ever let herself have one.
It makes sense that Portman's getting a second round of Oscar talk for Jackie. She slides into the role like it's an elbow-length satin glove. She speaks precisely, breathy and frigid, the sound of a snowflake hardening to ice. (Ironically, her voice is a less-sticky version of Marilyn Monroe's.) Portman pauses so often that you almost hear the cranks of Jackie's gears as she decides what to reveal. It sounds like an insult to say that Portman is a mannequin playing a mannequin — indeed, Jackie opens the film staring at a shop window effigy of herself, her public image memorialized (or mummified) when she was just 34. Yet it's really an odd compliment to both Portman and Kennedy's craft: Neither acted naturally, but you admire the effort. We're applauding layers of artifice, plastic skins suffocating the drum of a broken heart. Mostly, Larraín is content with airlessness. His film feels like nesting snow globes, one controlled climate inside of another, with the White House at the very center: a home that gets shaken every election.
Larraín doesn't show how Jackie learned her composure. I wonder if she had it as a college student when she archly announced that she wanted to be the "art director of the 20th century," or when she was a 22-year-old aspiring journalist who beat out thousands of girls for a year-long job at Vogue, only to be advised by the managing editor on day one that she should resign and focus on getting married before she became an old maid. Jackie obeyed. She downgraded to a receptionist gig at the Washington Times-Herald, and soon after, she met and married the man who would drag her, uncomfortably, into the spotlight. Her scuttled ambitions aren't in the film, either, but they explain why we never see her enjoy being an epic-scale homemaker. "I should have been a shopgirl," Portman sighs. "I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy."
Jackie came to define what a Kennedy symbolized more than anyone else in the clan. She was so self-aware that she was almost prescient, a time-traveler from the future analyzing what people wrote, or would write, about her family. In the year after JFK's assassination, she gave three interviews — to a historian, a biographer, and LIFE Magazine — and then stopped talking, although she was on the cover of tabloids so often it seemed like the press never shut up.
Larraín bundles the three men up into one aggressive caricature called The Journalist (Billy Crudup), who, bizarrely, hounds Jackie to defend her husband's legacy one week after his death. His dialogue clanks against the film's porcelain veneer. It's the graceless way Noah Oppenheim's script confronts what the wise widow would rather avoid: that in the two years, ten months, and two days her Kennedy was in office, he barely accomplished a thing. His successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, accomplished what the Kennedys couldn't: He shepherded the space program, signed the Civil Rights Act, and even realized Jackie's dream of a National Endowment for the Arts. But to her — and to the biographers — he's still that crass Texan who shit with the door open (a scene you'll see in both Woody Harrelson and Bryan Cranston's recent LBJ biopics). You could argue that Jackie's renovation of the White House will have a more lasting impact that any of her husband's policies — that is, unless its new owners gold-plate the Oval Office.
Here, Jackie is aghast when Lady Bird Johnson barges in with wallpaper samples while she's still packing up her belongings. Larraín sees that as the final indignity, not worse than when the Johnsons demanded that she legitimize his emergency oath of office by standing by LBJ's side before her husband was cold, yet terrible in its own way because Jackie had no way of stage-managing the insult for the press. At least during that ghastly inauguration, she could insist on still wearing her bloody suit, her clothes a powerful, silent rebuke of the change in command. That's the power of clothes, of surfaces, of superficiality. That's how you art-direct the 20th century.
It makes sense that a director would revere a kindred spirit who valued the perfect shot. He ennobles Jackie's fight to give her husband a funeral worthy of Lincoln, even though he hadn't done much to deserve it. When Jackie elbows the press to call the Kennedy Era "Camelot," to crown it eternal, they concede. There's something sour about watching journalists swallow stories like candy. Yet Larraín counters with an idea I'd never considered: the bravery it took for Jackie to walk eight city blocks behind her husband's casket, while the world — and, possibly, other snipers — watched. Duty demanded she perform her part in a ceremony of global grief. She'd given up privacy. Even her sorrow was ours.
Larraín slips off her mask a handful of times, mostly to give Portman the kind of big moments that command an Oscar. There's a tight close-up of Jackie scrubbing off JFK's sticky blood, another of her slender back huddled in the shower. It's theatrics. In Jackie's most alive sequence, she gets drunk on vodka and tries on all of her black clothes. She smokes and sobs and rejects one dress after another. The world's most famous widow must look perfect. "This is how we dress when something sad happens," she instructs John Jr. and Caroline. Civilization needs rules. It needs protecting. The trouble with snow globes is they shatter.