Pablo Larrain‘s Jackie is a major stand-out in a long line of docudramas about the tragedy and travails of the Kennedy family. It’s the only one that can be truly called an art film — intimate, half-dreamlike, cerebral, not entirely “realistic” but at the same time a persuasive and fascinating portrait of what Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) went through between the lunch-hour murder of her husband in Dallas on 11.22.63 and his burial at Arlington National Cemetery on 11.25.63.

Some of Jackie is about grief and weeping (naturally) but mostly it’s about steel — holding it together, arranging the funeral, standing up, refusing to wilt. It’s almost all shot in close-ups, right in there, no blinking or downshifting.

And the music! Mica Levi‘s melancholy strings, not so much “melodic” as a kind of melodic wailing, filled the Winter Garden last night and it was like “whoa!” The strings and a couple of tracks from the original B’way cast album of Camelot comprise the entire musical scheme. Not even those haunting funeral drums are heard — a ballsy move when you think about it.

Larrain, the respected Chilean-born director of No, The Club and Neruda, makes Jackie his own, and particularly Portman’s. It’s the best thing NP has done since Black Swan, and it puts her right dead smack into the hallowed circle of Best Actress contenders now — Portman plus La La Land‘s Emma Stone plus (here’s hoping) Viola Davis in Fences along with Loving‘s Ruth Negga.

Shot in 16mm and projected at HE’s favorite aspect ratio of 1.66:1, Jackie feels somewhat removed from the way that gut-slamming national tragedy looked and felt a half-century ago, and yet it’s a closely observed, sharply focused thing. Very much its own bird. Not a song re-sung but refreshed — a “cover” if you will.

If you’re looking for a familiar emotional bath in the lore of JFK and Jackie’s bright, sad tale, you’d best look elsewhere. Like any work of art Jackie is primarily about the vision and the brushstrokes and secondly the subject. It’s about how Pablo, Natalie, Jackie, Bobby and Jack have somehow spliced their DNA and made something new and now, and at the same time delivered a spooky time trip.

Jackie is therefore more about Portman playing Jackie than the former First lady herself, although Portman has not only recreated the voice and mannerisms and deep-seated sadness but has sunk right into the minutiae of that life and those times. On top of which Noah Oppenheim‘s script (a draft of which I first read six years ago) seems to uncover certain ground-table truths about who Jackie was and how she handled herself during these difficult hours.

90% of the events of the film are flashbacks, conveyed as Mrs. Kennedy is interviewed in late ’63 by historian Theodore H. White. If you ask me Billy Crudup‘s portrayal of White is the film’s second best performance. He hits exactly the right notes, speaking to the former First Lady concisely, frankly, tactfully. (Remember how great he was in Spotlight at Boston attorney Eric Macleish?)

Here’s what they got wrong: (1) Caspar Phillipson, who’s briefly glimpsed as JFK in four or five clips, is an inch or two shorter than Peter Sarsgaard‘s Robert F. Kennedy, even though everyone knows Bobby was the shorter one (around 5’ 10″) with JFK around six feet; (2) Phillipson’s hair is cut so short on the sides that you can see whitewalls — JFK’s light brown chestnut hair was always grown out enough so that was never an issue; (3) Saturday, 11.23, in Washington was a cold and rainy day — no indication that the filmmakers were particularly concerned with this fact; (4) John Hurt is quite good as an elderly priest whom Jackie confides in (the character is identified on the Wiki page only as “the Priest”) but he’s wearing a Van Dyke goatee, and no priests wore facial hair until the late ’60s or ’70s.