Few Americans can claim to know Jacqueline Kennedy the way we “know” other modern first ladies. Jackie, as we still call her, came to prominence just before our current era of television and media saturation. Although Jackie’s guided tour of the White House became a prime-time phenomenon in 1962, she remained mostly a still photograph: the young face, the pink Chanel suit, a symbol of what could have been.
“Jackie,” in which Syosset-raised Natalie Portman plays the Hamptons-born title role, wants to humanize an icon. Set immediately after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963, Pablo Larrain’s film finds Jackie at her most raw and vulnerable. The movie eschews the usual linear narrative — tragedy, grieving, coping — in favor of short scenes that jump around in time, perhaps mirroring Jackie’s shattered mental state. It’s an ambitious approach, but it also renders “Jackie” nearly unintelligible and keeps its subject at a frustrating distance.
Portman captures Jackie’s visible mannerisms — the lockjaw accent, the nervous fingers supporting a cigarette — without fully showing us the person underneath. That, however, may be the fault of Noah Oppenheim’s scattered script. “Jackie” begins with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup in a disguised version of Life magazine’s Theodore H. White) who interviews the former first lady a week after her husband’s death. Despite this framing device, in which each question prompts a new flashback, “Jackie” unfolds seemingly at random.
A brief glimpse of the Camelot presidency (a fancy ball with a Pablo Casals recital) leads immediately into the bloody horror of Dallas, followed by Jackie’s descent into despondency and morbid obsessions (“There were so many pieces”). Various White House figures — including an excellent Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and the briefly seen Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s friend and secretary Nancy Tuckerman — serve as sounding boards, but Jackie seems wildly different in every scene. As she micromanages her husband’s funeral for maximum public impact, she comes across as slightly off-putting, alternately wounded, imperious and mocking.
Much of the film consists of Jackie wandering, dazed and distraught, through a somber White House accompanied by a symphony of seasick strings (the score, brilliant but overused, comes from indie rocker Mica Levy). These scenes of grief don’t bring us any closer to Jackie. She’s still that iconic figure, as elusive as ever.