Just returned from Dallas, where her husband was assassinated as he sat by her side in the back of a presidential limo, Jacqueline Kennedy finds herself surrounded by people with little help to offer. A reporter, summoned by the widow to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, asks, "What did the bullets sound like?" Her brother-in-law suggests she see a priest, and while Jackie is reluctant ("Bobby, I want to talk to the press"), a priest is duly wheeled in. "Let me share with you a parable," he says.
Jackie seeks to inform us that the glittery Kennedy Administration launched a new style of politics—politics as a campaign of never-ending media manipulation. (We see a careful recreation the White House tour Jackie whisperingly conducted for CBS-TV in 1962, faithfully rendered in primordial black-and-white.) But this is hardly a fresh observation; and so by default, the movie devolves into a suffocating examination of its star, Natalie Portman, as she unleashes a tsunami of acting—weeping, simpering, smoking and snapping—much of it captured in relentless, oppressive close-ups. (Portman's accent seems odd at first—it feels haunted by the ghost of Gildna Radner's old "Baba Wawa" character on SNL. A quick visit to YouTube, however, establishes that this is in fact the way Jackie Kennedy spoke, so…points for meticulous preparation.)
The movie doesn't feel like it's really about anything—it has no warmth, no spirit, and its dialogue is sometimes dead. ("You left your mark on this country.") Chilean director Pablo Larrain deals with the assassination itself with an overhead shot of startling economy, and there's a resonant image in which we see Jackie peering out through a car window as the reflection of a well-wishing crowd outside passes across her face. But much of the rest of the film is staged like a historical reenactment, with actors representing Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and occasionally JFK himself (Caspar Phillipson, bearing an eerie resemblance) moving from room to tastefully appointed room, pausing here for a Pablo Casals cello recital, there for a sudden glimpse of the Oswald assassination, live on TV.
The movie's most grounded performance is by Billy Crudup, who plays Theodore H. White, a journalist interviewing Jackie on assignment for Life magazine. White was both a distinguished historian and a malleable Kennedy insider, and Crudup gives us glimmers of the man's self-awareness about his conflicted position When Jackie goes on about JFK's love of the Broadway hit Camelot and its original-cast album (cue Richard Burton's vintage bellowing of the show's title song), White realizes there's a metaphor being forged. And when Jackie takes up a pen and starts editing his interview notes, we can see that while White may not be entirely happy about it, he knows that his role has become one of craven acquiescence.
The film is considerably burdened by a pointlessly weird score by Mica Levy (whose work on the Scarlett Johansson movie Under the Skin was so hair-raisingly effective). Levy's shivery central motif sounds like a synthesizer sliding sideways off a cliff; it's certainly distinctive, and you can imagine it being perfect for another kind of picture. But not this one.
The movie's main problem, however, is Portman—or rather the use to which she's put. The director follows her everywhere, in a manner that sometimes recalls the nouvelle vague artiness of the period in which the story is set. With her White House tenure suddenly at an end, we track along with Jackie as she wanders down one vacant hallway after another, over and over. It's like she's moving out of Marienbad.