There is a famous photograph, taken only hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, depicting the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One. To Johnson’s side stands Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her husband’s blood still on her coat, her eyes fixed not on the new president, but straight ahead, locked at once on the presiding Judge Sarah T. Hughes and nothing in particular.

For all the historic importance of this photograph, and the global consequences it would come to represent, Kennedy remains the focal point, her expression the subject of endless intrigue and her presence the image’s defining feature. And so in a cabin full of high-ranking military officials, government representatives and secret service members, Jackie Kennedy’s face is still the talking point, all these years later.

The photograph is recreated in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, this time from the front, with Natalie Portman’s Kennedy looking directly into the camera. The rouge strand of hair concealing her face in the picture now brushed aside, and her expression burned on to the lens.

Larraín’s biopic of the third youngest First Lady to grace the Whitehouse seems to use this photograph as a point of orbit, building outwards from the mystery of her expression and focusing its attention on the human face’s ability to both forcefully conceal and instinctively reveal the deepest and most vivid of emotions, no matter what the circumstance: humanity, in essence.

The common thread of thought surrounding the death of JFK is that Jackie was strong for the nation and that she repressed the full spectrum of her immediate reaction in order to calm an American populace shocked by brutality, an idea explored predominantly through Portman’s performance and Larraín’s facial focus. However, it is not Kennedy’s face alone that the director utilises to explore one singular character (as the title would suggest); instead he widens his scope to included detailed portraits of RFK, Johnson, the Kennedy children, the American public and Abraham Lincoln, amongst others, in a bid to explore not just a momentous historical event, but the very idea of outward emotion as a concept.

And so Jackie is a film about faces, but more specifically, Jackie is a film about eyes.

The eyes – windows to the soul as bad songwriting tends to remind us – are here metaphors for authenticity. Much of the film’s structure is based around an interview with Kennedy, the week following the assassination, and both her own and the reporter’s attempts to deliver some kind of truth and reality to a world that suddenly seems unfamiliar. Truth and performance are here intertwined. Jackie’s performance for the masses conflicts with her true feelings, those of rabid grief and trauma, but her eyes cannot hide her instinctive reactions.

In this sense, Larraín’s film deals with an idea much bigger than politics or man-made turmoil, using Kennedy as an ideological vehicle as opposed to a protagonist. The eyes here remind us that, despite our vast differences, we’re all deep down made from the same stuff, human at best and human at worst.

Tangential and sedated at points and wildly focused at others, Jackie mirrors the grieving process with acute precision, using the faces and eyes of its cast to convey what dialogue, direction and cinematography cannot – that raw, indefinable substance that makes us what we are. With this in mind, Larraín’s film is one that is both coldly mechanical and warmly empathetic, exploring the event from both the static gaze of history and the explicitly intimate perspective of experience.

Much will be said about Portman’s performance, again Oscar worthy, and Mica Levi’s sedated score – weaving throughout and channelling grief into something more redemptive – but, as a work of art, Jackie stands as a collaborative effort, one that works because these elements come together to form a full picture, like the series of brushstrokes and marks that make up the portrait of Lincoln that the film so often returns to.