Article by Oline Eaton
It’s coincidental that Pablo Larraín’s new film, Jackie, arrived in theaters shortly after “post-truth” was declared the Oxford English Dictionaries Word of the Year, but it’s a film which seems well suited to the current international mood. Preoccupied with themes of fact and fiction, reality and myth, public and private, past and present, Jackie is a challenging portrait of a complicated and perplexing woman. The film’s greatest strength is that it shifts into more substantial territory an image that has, until now, remained stubbornly stuck in the sphere of fashion and style. However, with the best of intentions, in deconstructing one myth, Jackie perpetuates another.
In the 20th century, the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis garnered more public interest and media coverage than that of any other American woman. In the years since her death in 1994, her story has remained a popular subject for biographies and television movies, but it failed to make the leap to feature films, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis appeared only as a shadowy, often silent figure within the stories of others. Larraín’s Jackie represents the first time the former First Lady has been the central protagonist within a theatrical release.
Splicing together stories from the years 1962-1964, Jackie primarily focuses upon the First Lady in the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s murder. The film’s framing device is an interview between Jackie (played by Natalie Portman) with an unnamed journalist (played by Billy Crudup—who appears alternately bored, belligerent, and to have wandered into this film under duress). These scenes are the film’s weakest due to the strangeness of Crudup’s performance. Both his character’s dialogue and comportment telegraph a 2016 cynicism totally unbelievable for 1963, which is when these scenes are set. They are based upon an interview Jacqueline Kennedy did with Theodore H. White for Life magazine, wherein she spoke of how, as they fell asleep, her husband enjoyed listening to the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Camelot. In Jackie, this interview opens up a second narrative strand set at the time of the taping of the Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy in early 1962, and a third narrative running from the Friday of the assassination to the Monday of the burial in November 1963. The fourth narrative, introduced later, is a fictional discussion between Jackie and a real priest, the Rev. Richard McSorley, who counseled Jacqueline Kennedy in the spring of 1964. Cutting swiftly back and forth between these four moments in time, the film assembles a fragmented story in which many ambiguities persist.
Jackie doesn’t try to tell us everything there is to know about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Rather, it takes an impressionistic approach, zeroing in on a specific, relatively short period of her life and examining it closely from a multiplicity of angles. To that end, it is filled with extreme, insistent close-ups, particularly of Portman. This puts considerable pressure upon a performance that boasts a few moments of transcendence but which remains consistently overly mannered and uneven. Sometimes the gamble pays off. Towards the film’s end, a quick, unexpected cut to a close-up of Portman’s face in the back of the Mercedes on the way to the hospital in Dallas lands as a punch to the heart. Less effective: a lingering shot in a scene between Jackie and the priest, where they stand so close for such a long time that one begins to wonder if they might be romantically involved.
Aesthetically, Jackie is often transfixing. The Kennedys arrival in Dallas transitions seamlessly to a close-up of Portman against a sky of the exact same shade of blue. In another shot, the window of a Black Cadillac is overlaid with archival footage so that faces from the actual crowds watching the funeral procession slide across the glass as Portman peers out. Scenes such as this, intermixing archival footage with recreations, elegantly blur the lines between past and present to sublime effect. However, the film’s internal preoccupation with fact versus fiction, specifically the distortion of fact to tell a compelling story, begs the question of how much is fiction here.
Jackie takes many imaginative leaps, some of which prove extremely valuable. Where the film and Portman succeed is in quiet, intimate moments. A scene where Jackie removes her stockings, scrubs the blood and brain matter from under her nails, and washes the blood from her hair in the shower is striking because it depicts something seldom imagined and yet inevitable. Of course, at the end of that long, awful Friday, Jacqueline Kennedy had to remove her stockings. Of course, the dried blood would stick and tug at her skin. But in all the ways we fill the gaps in this story, mundane moments such as this one often remain unimaginable. The depiction here adds a new dimension and contributes to a fuller understanding of what this woman endured.
Other inventions are more melodramatic than illuminating but fairly benign. Later, in one of the film’s most fanciful episodes, Jackie listens to Camelot and careens about the empty White House family quarters, drinking vodka and wine while she tries on dresses, which she, at one point, models before two Secret Service agents. The invention here seems fairly obvious—Jacqueline Kennedy probably did not do any of this— but elsewhere the significant compromises of fact are less straightforward and such distortions add up. While it’s probably unreasonable to expect a biopic to adhere to entirely to known facts, even in a post-truth world surely we should be able to expect an accuracy level higher than 30%.
These distortions occur as major plot points in Jackie, warping the historical circumstances to exaggerate the protagonist’s vulnerability. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking that Robert Kennedy (played by Peter Sarsgaard) actually did watch the televised shooting of the President’s murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, and instruct everyone to keep the news from Jackie, so that when she took her children out in public for the President’s lying-in-state, she did so unaware of the potential threat. It’s a compelling scene, though it borders on character assassination. Similarly, most viewers are likely to accept the account of Jacqueline Kennedy finding the grave site location at Arlington National Cemetery and ditto the suggestion that she was present at the burial of her two small children—neither of which is true. Robert McNamara found the site and Jackie’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, attended the burial in her stead—two inconvenient facts for a film entitled Jackie, but also for the film’s broader claim that Jacqueline Kennedy orchestrated every aspect of her husband’s funeral and underwent her ordeal almost utterly alone.
This is where Jackie is perhaps less innovative than the filmmakers imagine. In deconstructing one myth and putting Jackie at the center of every decision, the film perpetuates another myth, found in the same issue of Life magazine as the famous Camelot interview. “Mrs. Kennedy’s Decisions Shaped All the Solemn Pageantry” reads the headline. The article below describes how, driven by “An instinct to establish the continuity of power” and guided by “A sense of history and a sure knowledge of her husband’s wishes,” Jackie “began a series of astonishingly detailed plans and decisions.” She oversaw everything, the article claimed, all on her own.
“There was, and still is, an understandable tendency to idealize the comportment of the President’s widow,” William Manchester noted in The Death of a President, his masterful 1967 account of the assassination and the weekend of the funeral. “She didn’t hold all the strings. No one could.” Elsewhere, he continues, “she could only shape broad outlines and leave details to others. Her lieutenants were her husband’s staff; in planning his state funeral she was, in effect, Acting President. She couldn’t have done it alone… nevertheless, she was the widow, the symbol.”
Jackie breaks new ground in positioning Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as the protagonist of her own story, but in deconstructing the Camelot myth, it peddles another. The problem that arises from this is that, while the filmmakers take care to fully develop the character, they neglect to put her in a fully developed world. Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill (who, with her husband, was staying in the President’s bedroom during the funeral weekend), is absent from the film and their mother, Janet, appears twice and only briefly. The result is an account wherein the former First Lady appears radically isolated and alone, with very few people on whom to rely. There is only her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy, her close friend and social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (played by Greta Gerwig, whose gentle performance is the film’s standout), the priest (played by John Hurt), and the painter William Walton (played by Richard E. Grant).
This is an archetypal story: that of a woman in desperate circumstances, engaged in battle, alone. Fundamentally, in Jackie, the war is with narrative. Over the course of the film, Jackie repeatedly loses control of her own story and attempts to regain it, by recounting events to the journalist, planning the funeral, and confessing to the priest. In the latter, she even claims to have staged such a public funeral for her husband specifically in the hopes that she would be shot during it—a dramatic, incisive line of dialogue with absolutely no basis in fact. Watching Portman, eyes unfocused, adrift in oppressively enormous White House rooms, Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of the blind Susy Hendrix in Wait Until Dark (1967) springs to mind. The sets are well lit but Jackie, traumatized, moves in darkness, unable to fathom the historical context in which her actions occur. The priest reminds her of the parable of the blind beggar, and suggests she has been made temporarily blind “so the works of God may be revealed in you.” “I lost track somewhere,” she confides, “of what was real, what was performance.”
Jackie plays this up again and again—the tension between the ways in which a story may be told and the awareness of the people in it that its telling is something over which, try as they might, they have limited control. The movie itself is a testament to this. “Maybe Jack will be remembered for the Missile Crisis,” an exasperated Robert Kennedy tells his sister-in-law at one point. “Or maybe he’ll be remembered for having created a crisis he was then forced to solve.” It’s something the real Robert Kennedy was unlikely to have said to his brother’s widow as they prepared to leave for the President’s funeral service, but it is reflective of the way we grapple with John Kennedy’s legacy now and with the legacies of the past more generally. It also cuts to the questions driving Jackie. What is real, what is story? And, what has been sacrificed for that story’s benefit? A provocative film with timely questions, Jackie should be seen but not believed.
Caroline “Oline” Eaton is currently a PhD student and working on a biography of Jackie Onassis. She is an academic of biography, gossip, celebrity culture, and obituaries. She runs the blog Finding Jackie and is a short story writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.