Pablo Larraín is from Chile, which might make him a less than obvious choice to direct Jackie, a movie about America’s first lady: Jacqueline Kennedy.
The pairing, however, is inspired — partly because Jackie is played to perfection (and with an affected accent) by Natalie Portman. But Larraín’s take on the story, with an expertly executed screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, is that the legend of the Camelot years is best approached as a sort of experimental movie, an exercise in real-time myth-spinning. Jackie is in keeping with some of his other work, most notably this year’s Neruda, about public and private image-making.
Jackie is no conventional Hollywood biopic. We don’t learn about Jackie’s upbringing or family history; we don’t witness John and Jackie’s romance; there’s no triumphant story arc detailing rise, fall, and comeback. Instead it’s a revelation, a steady gaze into the early years in which the American presidency was a site for crafting an image not just for the history books, but for the cameras. (Recall that John F. Kennedy was catapulted to victory partly because he soundly defeated Nixon in the first televised presidential debates.)
Jackie Kennedy — the third-youngest first lady to occupy the White House when she moved in — was keenly aware of her status as a Kennedy and as a resident of the “People’s House.” So aware that she took TV cameras through the White House on a tour to see the modifications she’d made since moving in, reinstalling furniture that had been sold off and renovating decor to honor the history of the house. The move buoyed the Kennedy administration’s popularity and built bridges with voters and diplomats. It was a media phenomenon.
What Jackie proposes is that this public face of the first lady was both truth and facade: not a false front, but rather a calculated one that becomes more interesting as you probe beneath its surface. That all was not as it seemed in Camelot is an open secret — but Larraín’s take is that this was not deceit so much as a blend of patriotism and self-preservation. Portman, as its engine, is as sublime and unforgettable as Jackie herself.
Jackie works in a tight timeframe to tell the first lady’s story of grief
Jackie opens in Hyannis Port in 1963, where the recently widowed Jackie welcomes a magazine reporter (Billy Crudup) into the house for an interview that will lead to a magazine profile, but informs him she’ll be editing everything — in case she doesn’t say what she means, as she puts it to him.
As their conversation unspools, her demeanor changes from poised defiance to grief. Following a moment of what seems like (but may not be) unguarded emotion about the gunshot that grazed her husband’s head, she regains composure and says to the reporter, “Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that.”
He scratches it out.
Whether her display of emotion is “real” or not is what Jackie interrogates. Through flashbacks, we see the recording of the TV tour of the White House, in which Jackie seems young and not quite poised yet, awkwardly trying to act natural. That’s about the only timeline in this film that isn’t just before, during, or immediately after the assassination. We see Jackie on Air Force One, carefully applying lipstick before she deplanes in Dallas. We see Jackie with Jack in the car, and the bullet grazing his head. We see her trying to wipe blood off her face and insisting on wearing a bloodied suit through the long day after the assassination. We see — in excruciating, devastating detail — her quivering attempt to hold it together as she encounters life, within a few feet of his coffin, as “whatever I am now.”
Slowly, though, we see a woman taking the shattered dream of her life — a carefully constructed patrician dream of beauty and elegance in the highest position an American can hold — and realizing, with a swiftness we as the audience can only deduce behind her, that sustaining that dream requires mounting a funeral that history will remember.
In a pivotal scene, Jackie sits in the hearse with her brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and has a sudden thought. She asks the driver and an attendant if they remember William McKinley or James Garfield. They don’t. But they remember Lincoln, don’t they? Of course they do. So she asks for books on his funeral as a template for Kennedy’s.
This is key, because as she and others point out, Kennedy was in office less than three years, and when he died, he was a contentious figure for many. There were WANTED posters with his face on them in Dallas, she remembers. Bobby Kennedy wonders if his brother will be remembered for causing or fixing the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK’s election was extraordinarily close — so close that he won only three more electoral votes than Donald Trump has. His myth was in no way assured.
Jackie recognizes this fast, and her solution is to plan a funeral of epic proportions. As we watch her do this, we live through her eyes. We see her horror at informing her children of their father’s death, her loss and pain, her solitary rambles through the White House she loves in fancy dresses, her sense of betrayal when she feels Bobby may be playing her to lay a path for his own run.
Jackie makes us wonder whether the facade of the American presidency is reality, after all
But are we really seeing Jackie as she is? That’s the question Jackie invites us to ponder. After all, we’re watching her on film. This, too, is a constructed story, one patched together from the myth itself. Larraín underlines this by shooting her conversations with the journalist (in which she appears like a hardened, world-weary, chain-smoking New England housewife) as a series of shots in which both she and her interlocutor are centered in their frames, cutting back and forth. It’s a stark choice, especially when contrasted with the swirling uneasiness of the camera when she’s plunged into the crowd in Dallas upon deplaning.
Jackie in Hyannis Port has put herself back together as the poised and image-controlling person we recognize most. But the film intersperses flashbacks in such a way that we only gather the full meaning of this personality at the film’s end, as all the threads of the story come together. The placement in time of a final thread, in which Jackie’s talking to a priest (John Hurt) about her loss, is left purposefully vague. But when that timing is finally revealed, all becomes clear. This is the story of a woman choosing something that such close proximity to the presidency had already foisted upon her: to be something in public, and something else in private, and to live both those timelines with equal gumption.
Near the very end, though, we briefly glimpse the free and happy Jackie, in a flashback to her dancing with her husband in a crowd in the East Room, not a care in the world, lost in the music. Her abandonment to happiness is startling because it’s not echoed anywhere else in the film, and it contrasts sharply with the hard exterior we see during the Hyannis Port days.
Need we bring in Donald Trump here, antithesis of Jackie in almost every way — temperamentally, religiously, aesthetically? Yes, only to say this: The televised tools of the Kennedy presidency, along with the construction of the Camelot myth, are strangely reflected in those used by Trump to hurtle himself toward the same house. If Trump — and many before him, including Obama — were willing to play that game to get the country’s vote and allegiance, then we have to trace some of that image-awareness back to the Kennedy era.
It’s the weird bargain we never knew we were making when we turned to our TVs to tell us about the world. It makes seeing politicians (like Bobby Kennedy) as they pick up on the uses and abuses of the image for their own political careers, whatever the actual ideological content, feel like an eerie forecast. On the one hand, who can blame them? On the other hand, what have we wrought?
All these pieces exist in Jackie, and yet it’s also a movie about a woman determined not to spin off into oblivion when the rest of her world does. We’re watching a broken woman wrench control of her own life away from the people around her. That process leaves her jagged and hardened — but the movie that gives her a public and private voice is anything but.