In movies, as in life, First Ladies have often gotten the short shrift, limited by circumstance and mythologizing. Ginger Rogers played a historically dubious version of Dolley Madison in Magnificent Doll, and Oliver Stone made some space for both Pat Nixon (Joan Allen) and Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks) in Nixon and W., respectively, but often the wives of presidents tend to get the TV movie treatment. Pablo Larrain's Jackie covers this territory unconventionally (and cinematically) twice: First, by closely following Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy without much physical presence from John F. Kennedy, and then by burrowing into her headspace in the days following Kennedy's 1963 assassination, rather than assembling a traditional biographical arc.
As Jackie Kennedy, Natalie Portman does imitate the famous figure, including her rounded, slightly mushy Mid-Atlantic vocal affect. But dedicated as Portman is, the performance connects in large part because of the film's approach. Jackie's Jackie walks around shell-shocked, trying to maintain her composure in the aftermath of her husband's murder. She's surrounded by handlers, administrators, and family members (including Bobby Kennedy, played by Peter Sarsgaard). She is also alone. This is a presidential-adjacent biopic that's mostly about making funeral arrangements. Grief echoes throughout the process.
To reflect this state of mind, the frame isn't strictly limited — one particular echo has the movie jumping back to Jackie's famous televised White House tour from 1962, depicted both as re-created black-and-white footage and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the coaching she receives from Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, not immediately recognizable). This unconventional sorta-biography even uses a traditional narrative device by opening with a journalist (Billy Crudup) prompting Jackie to speak about recent events, periodically returning to their conversations. These exchanges are often shot in alternating one-shots, with both the unnamed journalist and Jackie frequently appearing dead center of the frame, staring straight to the camera. These formalized compositions are mixed in with plenty of handheld work and following shots; there are touches of Terrence Malick as well as Darren Aronofsky (who produced this film and directed Portman to her Oscar in Black Swan), and the most constant score-hum this side of a Spike Lee joint.
Portman is also surrounded by a deep-bench supporting cast — Gerwig, Sarsgaard, and Crudup, plus John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon Johnson, Max Casella as Jack Valenti (!), and John Hurt as an unnamed priest — but it's her show, with other characters flickering in and out. As in Black Swan, she's great at playing someone who is often alone with her thoughts and doubts, though the steeliness that Jackie gathers in the face of her loss dwarfs Swan's Nina; by the time she's dictating terms to Crudup's reporter, she's built up a substantial wall.
The movie spends little enough time in the company of John F. Kennedy that when semi-lookalike Caspar Phillipson does portray him in a few scenes, it feels like a minor miscalculation — a violation of the film's mood. In part, this is a consideration of what's left after a president disappears from this world, leaving his family and potential legacy behind; in a sense, JFK has no place in it, even though the glimpses we get are short and affecting. Jackie is slightly too nervy, by design, to pack a full emotional wallop; to some extent, it's dealing with a situation most viewers will never really know. But that's why we watch movies about our presidents, isn't it? Larrain and Portman simply extend that curiosity about how such a rarified figure lives and dies to the president's wife, who in this case must handle both at once. If this close reading of First Ladies in crisis becomes a trend, I admit I'd be interested in seeing the Melania Trump version.