Opening Wednesday, December 21

Life magazine’s famous interview with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a week after President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, serves as a framing device in Jackie, director Pablo Larraín’s biopic. It seems to promise to portray a strong, independent woman, derided and underestimated by her critics as “some silly little debutante,” as Natalie Portman, playing Kennedy, sputters. But the film keeps her locked into her husband’s orbit, from the White House to his death. There’s nothing of her life before or after Camelot, and ultimately, Jackie presents a woman without agency.

Between Kennedy doggedly trying to steer the Life interviewer’s first draft of history and the creation of the Camelot mythology, flashbacks chronicle the hours before and days after her husband’s death in Dallas, Texas. As docudrama, it’s a potent, surreal portrait of grief. An elegant first lady becomes a blood-spattered widow at the speed of a rifle shot, and the wheels of government grind on with uncharitable inevitability. Lyndon Johnson takes the oath of office on the plane back from Dallas; Lady Bird Johnson measures new drapes before Kennedy has moved out of the White House. Meanwhile, Kennedy harangues everyone from Jack Valenti (Max Casella) to Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) about a grand funeral procession to seal her husband’s legacy.

“We have to get this right, Bobby,” Kennedy intones, emblematic of the vapid script. Still, Portman nails her performance, from her patrician mid-Atlantic accent to her heart-wrenching anguish, disbelief, and poise. But the rest of the cast is unmemorable, if not outright awful. Sarsgaard is the least convincing RFK ever. John Carroll Lynch looks nothing like LBJ. And while Dutch actor Caspar Phillipson bears a passing resemblance to JFK, all his lines are given to real-life audio of the former president. Songs from the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot are meant as the iconic coda to an era of lost innocence and historical mythmaking, but it’s unearned by the film’s limited scope and execution.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Jackie.”