The Reel Dad: Portman becomes Jackie in powerful new film

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in the new film, Jackie.
Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in the new film, Jackie.

The lady searches for words to express her grief. When she fails, she uses her eyes to intensely communicate the sadness. In a few seconds her life turns upside down as tragedy invades a safe space reserved for leaders and their ladies. And, when she looks up, she sees a nation desperate to find a moral to a fairy tale where no one lives happily ever after.

No matter how much you may remember about the assassination of John F Kennedy — or if you recall the television coverage over four endless days in November 1963 — the insight in Pablo Larrain’s powerful film Jackie uses events we remember to reveal emotions we may only imagine.

Without relying on a traditional narrative structure or scenes filled with conventional dialogue, Larrain creates a fascinating world in which a young widow tries to make sense a tragedy she cannot comprehend so she can interpret its meaning for a world in shock.

We know these moments. The young Presidential couple arrives at the Dallas airport on a November Friday when the sun shines bright over the Lone Star State. The motorcade whisks them through a downtown blanketed with people where an open convertible gives the crowd a rare view of power. A slow turn at the corner at Dealy Plaza positions the car, the people and the nation for tragedy as the sound that many initially consider a firecracker changes history.

The young widow Jackie Kennedy, as brilliantly portrayed by Natalie Portman, tries to balance her personal reaction with her sense of national obligation. Yes, she is a woman whose husband has died. But Portman’s portrayal reaches beyond the obvious reactions to consider the moment in history. As everyone around Jackie seems to position themselves for change — from brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy jockeying for power to Lady Bird Johnson checking out fabrics for the White House — only Jackie seems to acknowledge that how they frame the story will determine how people remember this moment. She alone considers the narrative while others process their grief.

This fascinating journey comes to thrilling life in the hands of an actress who was named Best Actress for her ambitious look at the world of ballet in The Black Swan. She should be a serious contender to win a second Oscar for revealing the layers of despair this woman must feel. In one sequence after another, Portman becomes Jackie as she walks through a silent White House listening to her husband’s favorite music, searches for the historical narrative in a tense conversation with a visiting journalist, or tries to find the words to tell her young children about their father. Throughout these sequences, as well as a detailed recreation of Jackie’s televised tour of the White House in 1962, director Larrain effortlessly connects his new shots for the film with archival footage from the period. And the result is staggering.

Yes, many movies try to bring humanity to historical stories. But few achieve the emotional integrity that Larrain reaches by letting the truth give actors the freedom to explore the depths of grief. With minimal words Portman – who appears in almost every scene – uses her eyes and face to register the range of reactions that tragedy creates. And she helps us understand the reasons why people carefully frame moments in history that will live forever.


  • Content: High. Moviemaker Pablo Larrain creates a fascinating view of how a public woman must process a private tragedy.
  • Entertainment: High. Despite the serious tone and content, the film delivers memorable movie entertainment thanks to the caring and creativity of its approach.
  • Message: High. As familiar as the events may be, what makes the movie work is how Larrain uses a range of visual approaches to reveal the private side of public incidents.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about how to process grief is fundamental; any chance to relive key moments in history is welcome.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After sharing this film with older children, take time to ask how they might react to such intense situations.

(Jackie is rated R for “strong violence and some language.” The film runs 1 hour, 39 minutes.)

Reel Dad Rating: 5 Popcorn Buckets

Exploring history at the movies

by Mark Schumann, The Reel Dad

Once again, a breathtaking film reveals dimensions of a moment in history we may have thought we fully understood. What’s striking about Pablo Larrain’s new film Jackie is how it reinforces what we remember as it celebrates what may be learning for the first time. And its power reminds us of four other films from the past that also offer essential history lessons to remember. Take a look.

Omar Sharif, center, with Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
Omar Sharif, center, with Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Some heroes are almost too complex to absorb. The differences they make to the world may look one way when events first occur and different, years later, when viewed by history. Only history can separate reality from myth. In 1962, director David Lean challenged himself to make film sense of T.E. Lawrence, a controversial man at the center of meaningful moments in the history of what we now call the Middle East. Lean puts us in the middle of a fascinating part of the world at a defining time as the British lose their hold on the future of the land and the destiny of the people. He teaches us, more than he could have imagined, fundamentals that continue to define this part of the world.

The Queen (2006)

Like Jackie, this Oscar-winning look at the Royal life immediately after the death of Princess Diana dares to challenge our conventional expectations how people in power should behave. In Helen Mirren’s skillful hands, Queen Elizabeth II moves from being a serious face in a formal portrait to become a thinking and feeling woman who tries to balance her obligations to family, country and history as she navigates new waters for any family much less a royal one. Her performance – a deserving winner of the Academy Award as Best Actress – teaches all other actors how to bring their own passion to the tricky challenge to recreate and interpret history.

Patton (1970)

Great military heroes dare to think bigger than others. Of the leaders of World War II, General George S. Patton was most controversial in how he viewed the world, the duty of soldiers, and the potential for peace. When I first saw this film, I sat next to a man who fought in Patton’s army. At intermission – which epic films of the day offered – I asked about the accuracy of the events on screen. The man smiled, and said, “it’s as though I am back in his army.” That’s the reality that director Franklin J. Schaffner creates. And, in George C. Scott’s iconic portrayal, Patton comes alive as a man defined by his beliefs, determined to fulfill his purpose, but unable to control his spontaneity.

Quiz Show (1982)

Since television began, the game show has been a staple. In the 1950s, these programs became a national obsession by making instant stars out of everyday people. But what if some contestants received the answers in advance to guarantee victory? Did this tampering with the outcome simply script the medium to meet audience demand? Or was it wrong? Robert Redford’s film recreates the scandals and the era as it reminds us of how people can stretch their perceptions of right and wrong. With amazing detail, the film warns that, no matter the entertainment value, when we tamper with people’s lives, all the ratings in the world can’t make up for the ultimate hurt.

See you at the movies.