clock menu more-arrow no yes

"Politicians have always tried to sell a fairy tale": Jackie's screenwriter on the power of a well-crafted image

For writer and Today executive Noah Oppenheim, the first lady’s story is eerily relevant today.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Hosts an Official Academy Screening of JACKIE
Jackie screenwriter Noah Oppenheim speaks at a panel discussion about the film hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at MoMA on November 29, 2016 in New York City.
Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

The legacy of John and Jackie Kennedy’s White House is the stuff of national legend — in America’s eye, their time spent in the “People’s House” is linked with the Arthurian legend of Camelot, romantic, sophisticated, and idyllic. It ended in JFK’s tragic assassination, which cemented his image as the brave, handsome leader for the country.

But that legend didn’t grow organically. Jackie, about the days following the assassination and the former first lady’s response, chronicles the precise moment in time when the grieving widow recognized and harnessed the power of media to craft a narrative that would always be attached to JFK’s legacy.

Jackie has been praised by critics for how deftly it renders this turning point in American history — a time that has implications for politics today — and the film garnered Natalie Portman her third Oscar nomination for playing the first lady. But much of that praise also belongs to screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, whose complex screenplay for the film goes far beyond a traditional biopic in examining how myths are made in real time.

Oppenheim was perhaps more qualified than most to take on such a topic. While he has one foot firmly planted in Hollywood, he has the other in a more unusual place: He’s also a senior vice president at NBC News and executive-in-charge at the Today show. His experience as a news journalist and producer is evident in Jackie, which is about weaving narratives around current events, and which also features Billy Crudup playing a magazine journalist interviewing Jackie in the days following JFK’s assassination.

I talked to Oppenheim about the film’s timeliness given the events of the 2016 election cycle, the way we construct political narratives, and how Jackie Kennedy controlled her public image.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

It was a long road from writing the screenplay to seeing Jackie on the big screen, wasn’t it?

Noah Oppenheim

Six years, roughly. Jackie was the first spec script I ever wrote, and I wrote it in 2010. It was born out of a lifelong fascination with Jackie, and with the Kennedys, and with this period in American history. I'd been reading about it and studying it for a very long time.

When I finished the first draft of the script, I got very, very lucky in the way that sometimes one gets in Hollywood: Filmmakers were interested, and specifically Darren Aronofsky, whom I had long admired, was interested in making it. The time from writing it to getting it set up with him at Fox Searchlight was relatively quick. It felt miraculous.

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie
Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie.

Of course, I got very, very unlucky in the way that one sometimes gets in Hollywood: It got delayed and delayed and delayed. I basically gave up on [the movie] ever happening for quite a long time — until it came back to life recently.

There was a period of four or more years when I would occasionally call or email Darren and his producing partners and say, "Are you ever going to do anything with Jackie? Are you ever going to make it? Are you ever going to find someone to make it?" I was extremely obnoxious and impatient. Darren, to his credit, was very patient and very polite, and kept saying that he was going to get it made and he wanted to make sure that he got it made with the right collection of people — specifically the right director.

As I say, it's just a long period of waiting. There were a couple of little false starts during that time, but not much to give me hope. Out of the blue, Darren called me after he led the jury at the Berlin Film Festival [in 2015] and awarded a prize to Pablo Larraín's film The Club. He called me and said, "I found the guy [to direct Jackie]." That was quite a nice phone call to get, because I had completely given up on it.

Alissa Wilkinson

Even though it took a long time, the film feels very fresh, especially in today’s political climate. Jackie isn't an elected official, but she's kind of like a politician, crafting her own public narrative in real time. Did you see her as sort of a product of her time, or as someone who was very forward-thinking?

Noah Oppenheim

It's funny, she's both of those things. She's very much a product of the 1950s. We think of the Kennedys in the ’60s, but we're talking about 1960-1961. She was very much a product of the 1950s, and she lived her life according to the societal expectations of how a woman should conduct herself, particularly in the public eye. At the same time, she had a very forward-looking and modern appreciation for the power of mythmaking and the process of mythmaking, and specifically the role that television and the media could play in that.

Her husband is often put at the center of the first time that television really influenced American politics, in his performance during the Kennedy-Nixon debates. People talk about how Kennedy’s appearance on TV during those debates helped sway the electorate: People who watched on TV thought he won, and people who listened to them on the radio thought Nixon had won. That's an often-studied moment in American history where TV started influencing how people viewed their politicians.

Natalie Portman played Jackie Kennedy in Jackie
Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy in Jackie.
Fox Searchlight

I think Jackie, in conceiving of this CBS televised tour of the White House, made an even more conscious decision to use TV cameras to speak directly to the American people and craft a certain story that she wanted to tell — about her, and her husband, and their place in American history. She did it by bringing these cameras into their home, creating this illusion of transparency, and talking about the historical artifacts that she had surrounded herself with and the men and women who had lived in that house before them. It was quite a modern idea, and a modern performance as well.

Alissa Wilkinson

Were you shooting the film during the 2016 presidential primaries?

Noah Oppenheim

Yes, in November and December 2015, and things were already kicking off. The election cycle was just getting going.

Alissa Wilkinson

As a journalist with a background in news, do any current events seem to parallel the film for you?

Noah Oppenheim

Yeah, absolutely. There's a ton of parallels. First, there's the question of how public officials differ in private — who public officials are in private, versus the public image they project.

We had a candidate in the form of Donald Trump who has a certain public image, and is perceived by his supporters as being a very successful and savvy businessman. He fashioned himself — or advertised himself — as somebody who "tells it like it is," sort of an unfiltered straight talker. The people who were attracted to his candidacy believed in that public image and believed that's who he is. He has obviously mastered some of the newer forms of mass media, social media in particular, to help craft this image and communicate with his followers.

Secretary Clinton also had a sort of divide between private and public. People who know her well almost universally describe her as being warm and honest and smart and likable and wonderful, and yet for many people that wasn't part of her public image.

Jackie Kennedy was somebody using tools of mass media to create a certain perception. The face she presented in private was certainly distinct and different from the face she presented when she was on public display. I think these issues are always at the center of American political life as American celebrity. They never go away. They take on slightly different nuances and forms, but it's kind of an ongoing feature of our cultural and political life.

Alissa Wilkinson

In one of the film’s big framing devices, Jackie is talking to a print journalist. It feels like a fencing match. Is the journalist a composite of real characters?

Noah Oppenheim

It's a composite. Jackie Kennedy very famously gave the “Camelot interview” in which she coined that reference to Theodore White. He's one of the inspirations [for the journalist character], but he had a much friendlier relationship with her and the Kennedy family than depicted in those scenes. It's sort of a composite of him; William Manchester, who wrote The Death of a President and with whom Jackie had a more adversarial relationship; and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whom she sat with and gave extensive interviews over which she exercised some amount of control. The character is sort of a stand-in for a variety of journalists and historians, those and others, that she interacted with over the course of her life.

Alissa Wilkinson

Were you drawing on any stories when you wrote her conversations with him? It’s a combative conversation — she says things and takes them back, and so on.

Noah Oppenheim

It's a dynamic that you see reflected in her conversation with a lot of these people. There are sections of the Schlesinger tapes that are redacted, or that she asked them to stop recording. The amount of control that she sought to exercise over Manchester's final book is fairly well-documented. This kind of give and take was common throughout her life whenever she was working through an intermediary to try to communicate a message to the public.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Hosts an Official Academy Screening of JACKIE
Director Pablo Larraín, actress Natalie Portman, writer Noah Oppenheim, and producer Darren Aronofsky attend a panel discussion following the Official Academy Screening of Jackie, hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at MoMA on November 29, 2016, in New York City.
Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Alissa Wilkinson

A lot of people are talking about press freedom and the tension between politics and the press because of current events, especially in the new White House. Do you think Jackie Kennedy’s example is useful? Is what we’re seeing today of a piece with what she was doing?

Noah Oppenheim

There's always been a certain level of tension between politicians and the press. That's always kind of a cat-and-mouse game, to some extent. I think the state of that relationship at this moment in time is certainly unique. I don't see any clear parallel.

Jackie Kennedy obviously had a kind of love-hate, give-take relationship with the press and with reporters and with her own fame. But I think underneath that was a certain underlying level of respect.

Alissa Wilkinson

There's a line in the film about how people like to believe in fairy tales — in a sense, Jackie is crafting Camelot, but it’s only successful because people are ready to grab onto it. They’re looking for it. Is there a fairy tale like that today?

Noah Oppenheim

In fairness, I think politicians have always tried to sell a fairy tale to the American people. Sometimes those fairy tales have come true, or at least portions of them. Often they have not.

One could argue that some of the anger and cynicism in this country right now is a byproduct of people feeling like they've been sold a false bill of goods in the past. I don't think there's anything unique about that. Presidents are always selling a vision of what the country can be. People obviously are attracted to the sunniest, most appealing version of that.

Unfortunately I think people feel like they've been burned many times before. I think, like I say, that's part of the anger, cynicism, and frustration that is clearly at work.

Alissa Wilkinson

How much of that is uniquely American, and how much of that is common to people generally? Is our system of government or elections part of it?

Noah Oppenheim

That is a deep, deep question. I'd have to think about for longer than 10 seconds. Is it a unique flaw in the American political system? One could argue that certainly, the era of mass media has certainly heightened it. You're selling people a vision of the country that has to be reduced to an eight-second sound bite or a 30-second TV spot, at best. That kind of lends itself to a certain simplicity. Unfortunately, politics or actual solutions to large social and economic problems are rarely simple. That's a challenge.

Alissa Wilkinson

And a challenge for journalists, too, because you're trying to sell a correct version of that but make it relatable and watchable.

Noah Oppenheim

Yeah, life is complicated. If you're looking to capture all the subtleties, life lends itself more to a 30,000-word magazine article than social media posts.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which is why it was remarkable to watch Jackie and think, "Man, I don't even think this movie would've had as much resonance six years ago as it does today."

Noah Oppenheim

I was so frustrated and disappointed for so many years that the movie wasn't getting made. Then it got made with an unlikely collection of people — first and foremost, Pablo [Larraín], who did such a brilliant job with it, and who I never would've thought of when I was first writing. I now can't imagine the movie being made by anyone else. That it came out at this moment in history and for our country, and therefore now has all this additional resonance — I guess it goes to show that sometimes things happen for a reason. Sometimes they just suck, but sometimes they happen for a reason.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.