Jackie has come out not long after the 53rd anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, further proving that the murdered president, his legacy and all those in his orbit still captivate us even now. In fact, it appears much of the point of Jackie is to give the former First Lady her due credit for keeping that legacy, the fairy tales around it, and the very perception of Camelot alive right after the murder, no matter how much of it or her was actually real or performance.
As it happens, Jackie is one of countless films this fall that can be seen under a new and very relevant light. Now that the legacy of a President who perhaps saw himself as one of JFK's successors is teetering, and now that it appears America is in a "post-truth" society, the importance of preserving our history even amidst radical change, the debate on how truthful such history should really be, and the value and/or danger of remembering history and people through mythology is more timely than it was in 1963. But as Natalie Portman and director Pablo Larrain show, the main difference between then and now is in who thrust herself as the caretaker of such myth/history, even in the midst of unconscionable circumstances.
Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim try to get around the standard biopic rules by weaving back and forth through the Kennedy years, and the aftermath of their ending. Primarily, their take on the aftermath of Nov. 22, 1963 shows the former First Lady processing her grief by taking the lead in planning the biggest state funeral since Lincoln, in a last gasp to honor and preserve JFK's legacy. In the process, they flash back to her famed televised tour of the White House in 1961, flash forward to a post-funeral interview where she continues to control the narrative, show her being much more unguarded in a series of talks with a priest, and drive home that the country owes much of the survival of JFK's post-assassination legend to Jackie.
It is a point which speaks to the heart of the Kennedy/Camelot saga, through one of the rare perspectives of it that hasn't been told in this much detail before. Although the former First Lady's legend has also been examined and mythologized as much as her husband and her brother-in-law's in the last five decades, Jackie is the rare major movie to put her front and center.
Ironically, she furthered the myth of her own image to such an extent in 1963 and beyond, some who view Jackie may themselves be taken aback at what it claims to show behind the curtain of her facade, and wonder how truthful or embellished it is in of itself. But it almost seems like the movie argues that the true answer to such questions really doesn't matter, at least not as much as the story and who is telling it.
On the one hand, Jackie is shown as a student of history, particularly of the White House and Lincoln. As she seeks to ensure that her husband isn't forgotten like other non-Lincoln assassinated presidents, she shows just how important it is and was for America to remember its past and its heroes, especially in the darkest times. In fact, doing so through mythologizing and borderline grandstanding is kind of the American way, for both the good and the bad, and it was a lesson Jackie embodied and furthered long before Nov. 1963.
On the other hand, the darker side of distorting and exaggerating history and legacy, regardless of what the actual truth is, has become very clear lately. Of course, Larrain and Oppenheim surely didn’t intend to comment on that while they were making Jackie, as it stumbles onto this added relevancy by sheer accident and coincidence.
Nevertheless, their argument of the value of mythologizing history and its leaders, regardless of the hidden and more inconvenient truths, is one that was easier to defend on principle in 1963 than it has perhaps become now. Maybe it isn’t the best time to make this kind of argument at a time where truth itself has fallen under attack, even if that is not technically the movie’s fault.
If anything, it argues that such tactics are okay as long as the right people are carrying them out. And if anything, going back to a time where there were such people in the White House may be extra valuable to some now. Either way, these are certainly issues that need to be talked about and closely examined these days, as America wrestles with who it was, where it came from and which lessons of history and/or myth it will soon live by.
In another bit of irony, Jackie also brings to mind another recent piece of American history/mythologizing in Hamilton. While that was far more musical, it also addressed how our memories of America and its leaders are defined by who controls and is included in the narrative, and by the questions of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
In this case, the caretaker of that narrative is Jackie, which is presented as having made much of the difference after the assassination. Just as having the right caretaker of the Kennedy legend helped pulled America through, having Portman as the caretaker of Jackie’s legend pulls Jackie through.
Between the Jackie voice and the Jackie the movie presents behind closed doors, surely some are bound to make nitpicks. However, the primary beauty of Jackie the character and movie comes in watching Portman slip into all the different Jackies presented.
There’s the one putting on a made-for-TV show around the White House, the one walking around in shock at the White House, the one trying to put on the right public face in the midst of tragedy, the one who pushes forward beyond all reason to give JFK the biggest public farewell, the one who briefly questions the vanity behind it all, the one who puts on her steeliest facade when questioned by Billy Crudup’s journalist, and the one who lets it crumble away in front of John Hurt’s priest. Whichever one of these Jackies was closest to the real one at any given time, Portman morphs into all of them with such precision, to the legend or otherwise, that one can’t look away from any of them.
Larrain does his part with so many extreme close-ups at times, he almost seems to be channeling Tom Hooper, as ominous as that may sound to some. He also has some frequently stunning shots and imagery when he manages to go wide, although it doesn’t always match the breathtakingly edited trailers. Mica Levi’s score also adds an eerie and occasionally unbalanced effect, sometimes too intrusively and other times with real power.
But Portman’s body language, public and private faces and personas, and her personal embodiment of history and myth are Jackie’s most valuable bells and whistles. Since there are so few scenes without her, they pretty much have to be, although Crudup, Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard’s Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig’s personal secretary and Richard E. Grant’s decorator try not to make it a complete one-woman show.
Still, Jackie is mainly all about Jackie, although it also touches on much more. Not all of it may be things that viewers necessarily agree with or should agree with, whether it is the myths or myth-busting or whether the film is right to endorse either tactic.
Regardless, this is still a movie where the lessons of history, whether they are real or exaggerated or everything in between, are ones that have not faded away. Jackie Kennedy is more than given her due for that back in 1963, whether or not more or less of this kind of historical preservation is really needed in 2016.
Jackie the film, Jackie the woman and everything around them is shown to have glaring contradictions, to their benefit and to their detriment. It shows the value and even importance in how Jackie kept alive the best image of her husband, the White House and their history at the time America and herself most needed it, in the culmination of years of such performances. But despite those noble ends, such a glowing endorsement of the means sends an uneasy message at a time where selling mythological history over strictly truthful history has gone to much more questionable extremes decades later, even if that isn't the movie's intent at all.
The way Portman and Larrain send that message, and all the public, private and personal contradictions contained within, make it even more tempting to fully let it slide. There are worse distortions and interpretations of history to be seduced by, and this one reflects the truthful need to keep American history and legacy alive regardless of its truthful presentation, especially in who we allow to do it and who is really the most capable of it. The country got lucky in having Jackie around to do it back then, although it made her pay too high a price for it first.
Maybe in some very small fashion, Jackie has her legacy and history resurface at just the right time again, albeit not entirely in the ways it might have intended. That helps make it a necessary movie and one that needs to be examined and wrestled over right about now, if not one to perhaps completely agree with.
Still, for being a film of its time and perhaps accidentally of ours, Jackie is bumped up to an eight on the TMN.com scale despite being a bit closer to a 7.5.