Maybe you're thinking the last thing you want to see is a TV-movie–ish take on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy. Good news. Jackie is not a damn thing like that. There's hardly a conventional biopic minute in it. Instead, you get a spellbinding look at one of the planet's most famous women through the prism of what happens right after her husband is assassinated and she cradles his bullet-shattered head in her lap. Let me mention right of the gate that Natalie Portman, in a performance that tops her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan, will floor you with her tour de force as the former First Lady. The iconic look, the breathy voice and the strictly correct posture are suggested but never crassly imitated. Still, if you ever wondered about the steel that Jackie forged through personal tragedy and intense public scrutiny, it's on display here in an electrifying portrayal that nails every nuance.
Directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Neruda, No), in his first English-language feature, Jackie is a mesmeric conjecture on an intensely reserved woman pushed to the limit by politics, family, grief and her own conflicted sense of self. In the film's one significant flashback, a TV tour of the White House that Jackie hosted two years before JFK was shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, we see a woman passionate about preserving the legacy of art and décor in the Presidential residence but anxiously reluctant to let the camera (or anyone) get too close. From the first unnerving strains of the hypnotic score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin), the film thrusts us into a world out of balance, offering mosaic-like glimpses that speak to her state of mind under unbearable pressure.
There is killing, the hospital, the flight out of Dallas when Lyndon Johnson takes the oath, the pink dress and pillbox hat she finally sheds to shower away her husband's blood but without ridding her of hard, painful memories. It's then that the First Lady goes into action, comforting her two young children, stalling the Johnsons' desire to hustle her out of the White House, and organizing a funeral march on the streets of D.C. to rival Abraham Lincoln's. When LBJ's special assistant, Jack Valenti (Max Casella), offers resistance, her takedown is satisfyingly lethal. It's not just vodka, pills and that watchdog social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (a very fine Greta Gerwig) who get her through it, though they help. It's determining never again be a pawn in someone else's game.
Jackie's friend and brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (an outstanding Peter Sarsgaard) worries that his family will just be remembered now as "the beautiful people." Not if Mrs. Kennedy can help it. In an interview she gives to an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup, alert and vivid), modeled on Theodore H. White, the President's widow demands editorial control "in case I don't say exactly what I mean." Demanding the reporter read her back what he's writing, Jackie – freely indulging her cigarette habit – coolly announces "I don't smoke." As for her words about her last minutes with her husband (Caspar Phillipson), she snaps, "Don't think for one minute I'm going to let you publish that."
In giving us impressions carved out of Jackie's grief, brush strokes that prize feeling over fact, Larraín – working from a risky, riveting original screenplay by Noah Oppenheim – offers a fuller picture than any standard biographical drama ever could. During private talks with a Catholic priest (John Hurt), the First Lady discusses the intimate problems in her marriage that neither she nor the priest can reconcile. But the Kennedy legacy will endure in her hands. Bet on it. More than once, Jackie references the Broadway musical in which Richard Burton as King Arthur sings of "one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot." Did she believe it? No matter. She made sure we all did. This is a woman will not be denied, and neither will this potent cinematic provocation. Powered by a transfixing Portman, Larrain's film – one of the year's best – is appropriately hard to pin down and impossible to forget.