PLAYING AT SIFF | 'Jackie' deftly captures the life of an American icon

Perhaps the most astute move “Jackie” makes is to not posit Jackie Kennedy as the inherently great, American hero as the canon of history has left her. She’s a woman, living public and private lives that often leave her unsatisfied, forcing her to wrap herself in veneer, and finding her way after her future implodes. In “Jackie,” Jackie Kennedy is the center of attention, the center of the screen, the rock holding it all together. But it’s not the Jackie you know.

It’s a thought returned to again and again in the film: Jackie (Natalie Portman) is consumed by appearances, understanding that the stories we tell about people can become more truthful than the person in flesh and blood. And in the days following Jack’s death in Dallas, every optic counts.

Writer Noah Oppenheim taps into those nerves to give the film its frenetic energy. The bulk of the story is contained within the week or so after President Kennedy’s assassination — the difficulties of the funeral, her interview with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life magazine that would inaugurate and cement the “Camelot” narrative of the Kennedy White House, the quixotic public grieving process — but it jumbles through time as if it were pouring straight out of Jackie’s mind. In her shock she jumps from topic to topic, arrangement to grieving, and back, all in the span of minutes.

The flow is matched with a handheld, naturalistic feel from director Pablo Larraín. It’s may be a bit of a film festival cliche at this point, but his always-moving camera only heightens the avalanche of emotions washing over Jackie. As they walk out onto the tarmac in Dallas, he moves ebbs into Jackie’s face like the tide, always getting a little too close, holding a little too long. When the interview dips its toe into the actual assassination he cuts quickly between her face, an shot of a speeding car, pulling over to almost see inside the convertible, before quickly flashing to her at the hospital, sobbing, and cleaning her face.

Portman’s performance as Jackie is becoming another festival cliche, but damn it all if she doesn’t earn every drop. Her range here — capturing all of Jackie’s confusion, self-righteousness, anger, sadness, cautiousness, recklessness—is outstanding. If you’re watching Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, first lady, you’ll find some errors: Her affected accent can tip into a breathy Monroe; her physical presence varies from the former first lady. But if you see her here as Jackie Kennedy, woman, the image becomes much clearer. Where a lesser production might’ve risked reducing our former first lady to either a one-note widow or a lurching gear-shift, Portman cruises smoothly through every facet.

Though there’s commitments to truths, choices on the part of Portman, Larraín, and Oppenheimer to paint the Kennedy life one way or another, “Jackie” manages to largely stay above making too many pointed observations about its heroine. To say she is vain, vital, or vacant is to miss the point. To say she had grace under pressure understates the pressure she was under. What the film can say is that she was deliberate and exacting of every part of Jack’s funeral, as well as herself.

The whole film is such a rich exercise that it feels fluid even when it’s not. As we bounce around Jackie’s emotions and experiences, there’s no special lesson learned. We’ve merely reached the end of our time with her. She’ll live on, of course, eventually becoming Jackie O, but for now she is a statement in and of herself; impetuous, haggard, exquisite. Jackie.

“Jackie” opens Dec. 21 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian (805 E. Pine St.)