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‘Jackie’ Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim Finds The Human Side Of History: Awards Spotlight

The former TV producer's media history made him an ideal craftsman for scripting Jackie Kennedy's story.

Noah Oppenheim

Daniel Bergeron

Everyone has to forge their own path to Hollywood’s highest honors, but “Jackie” screenwriter Noah Oppenheim charted a particularly eccentric course. A Harvard grad, he got his start in media by co-creating “Mad Money with Jim Cramer” and producing “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” After a stint supervising the 7am hour of “The Today Show,” Oppenheim ditched television for books, co-authoring a series of secular devotional readers designed to “arouse curiosity” and “refresh knowledge.” And then he pivoted again, adapting screenplays for mega-budget YA movies like “Allegiant” and “The Maze Runner.”

With that resumé, a piercing and deeply felt story of an American icon at the height of her grief isn’t the obvious next step. Then again, maybe a fraught, complex, and ineffably humanizing portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination — a portrait designed to liberate the former First Lady from the petrified amber of her iconography and her husband’s POV — is simply Oppenheim’s most effective effort yet to “refresh knowledge.”

Oppenheim’s script represents a refreshingly unconventional way of rendering a historical figure on screen. Non-linear but sharply focused, it crystallizes Kennedy’s grief by looking at it through the narrow lens of a kaleidoscope. “I’ve just never been a fan of those broader cradle-to-grave biopics,” Oppenheim told us. “I think it’s easier to illuminate a person’s character by focusing on one particularly intense period in their lives, and obviously it’s harder to find a more intense crucible than the one [Jackie] went through when her husband was killed.”

Joining a team that was lead by director Pablo Larraín, Oppenheim was fortunate to be graced with collaborators who could bring that crucible to life. The screenwriter was particularly impressed with Natalie Portman’s nuanced, defiant portrayal of the woman at the movie’s core. “Natalie’s performance exceeded my wildest expectations of what someone could do with the role,” Oppenheim insists, reflecting a widely held reaction. “Her work in the movie blows my mind every time I sit down to watch it.”

Jackie Kennedy was a woman who has always been seen as merely a fashion icon and an accessory to history, but Portman’s performance fulfilled the promise of Oppenheim’s script, restoring strength and dignity to a woman whose life required her to have ample reservoirs of both. Oppenheim, who says that he had been interested in Kennedy since he was a kid, reflects that he “had the sense that nobody had ever told her story in a way that gave her her due,” and he was determined to change that.

He must have known he was on the right track to accomplishing that goal when he stepped on to the film’s incredible set, which — viewers are often shocked to learn after watching the film — was built from scratch on the outskirts of Paris, thousands of miles away from the real White House. Oppenheim remembers the first time he saw the world they had reconstructed for the shoot, and how it felt like he was suddenly living inside of his words: “I have this other existence as a journalist and I’ve been lucky enough to be in the White House, and when I walked on the set in Paris I was transported.” It’s one of the many reasons why “Jackie” doesn’t feel like it’s digging up ancient history, but rather restoring the presentness of the past so that Kennedy’s grief feels as fresh as the day she first confronted it.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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