In Depth

How true to life is Natalie Portman's Jackie?

New film about wife of JFK is an 'unsettling mix of fact and fiction'

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A bio about Jacqueline Kennedy in the devastating aftermath of the assassination of her husband, president John F Kennedy, could well be heading towards Oscar glory. But how true to life is the film, Jackie, and how accurate is Natalie Portman's mesmerising portrayal of Jackie Kennedy?

The movie, by Chilean director Pablo Larrain, with a script by Noah Oppenheim, opens in the UK this week. It focuses on how the first lady coped with her grief following her husband's assassination, as well as how she struggled to retain her dignity and public persona while also trying to preserve JFK's legacy.

The film kicks off in the week after JFK's death, with Jackie giving an interview to Life magazine journalist Theodore H White (Billy Crudup). Eric Eldelstein at Mic points out that "as bizarre as it may seem" that Jackie would want to talk to the media at this time, the interview did take place at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.  

Jackie is shown self-consciously comparing the Kennedy era to the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot and organising a funeral procession based on Abraham Lincoln's. The story is intercut with scenes recreated from her famous 1962 Tour of the White House documentary. 

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Portman certainly did her homework on how to look, sound and carry herself like Kennedy, notes Sage Young at Bustle. Compare any clip of Portman's performance to a recording of the former first lady's voice and "it's almost impossible to tell them apart".

But this is no "comfort-blanket biopic", says Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post, who describes the film as "a combination of rigorously detailed historical re­creation, real-life archival footage and purely speculative fantasy".

The result, Hornaday says, is "an unsettling, almost hallucinatory mix of fact and fiction". The filmmakers simultaneous pay tribute to Jackie's iconic persona and challenge it head-on, portraying her as both a "figure of superb grace [and] taste" as well as a shrewd, even calculating architect of her own legacy.

In one moment the film precisely recreates real-life events such as the White House tour and in the next it spins "a fantastical montage in which she staggers in a druggy haze through the East Wing, sipping vodka and trying on couture gowns" from her idealised past.

Not everyone will like it, says Hornaday, who notes that already some viewers have been shocked by scenes of Jackie smoking – she was reportedly a chain smoker. And some (especially baby boomers) have announced that they're not interested in having their view of Jacqueline Kennedy ruined by Larrain's countermyth.

Yet Hornaday argues that while some viewers may believe that any departure from known facts plays into our "post-fact" culture, there's a crucial difference between creative licence and lying. If the film does depart from literal truth, she says, "it isn't to deceive viewers with pseudo-documentary authenticity" but to prompt us to question "what counts as authentic at all".

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