A Bold, Barefaced Retelling Of
the Great American Fairytale
The presidency of John F. Kennedy has been indelibly etched into American history due to its powerful combination of tragedy and nostalgia. On one hand, the assassination of JFK stirred an outpouring of grief and confusion in a nation that was already teetering on the line between progress and deterioration. On the other, Kennedy’s presidency is almost universally linked with a glowing sense of serenity, which has since been affectionately labeled as the “Camelot era.” And yet, both during and after the presidency, it was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who rivaled (if not outshined) her husband’s memory. A noted fashion icon and political socialite, Jackie’s presence in popular culture has maintained a similar air of fantasy in the decades since, and it’s within this idyllic era that director Pablo Larrain chooses to set his first English-language film.
Jackie sporadically explores the stages of grief, jumping from one point in time to the next without following a strict timeline. Speaking generously, the film covers around a year of Jackie (then-Kennedy’s) life, though it centers on the days following JFK’s assassination. The lack of any significant backstory is just one of the aspects of the film that bucks the sweeping, three-arc biopic mold, opting instead for a story that reads more like fiction than fact. There’s simply no real need to get into any build-up because we already know how the story ends.
What we don’t necessarily know is the woman behind it all, what she was feeling, thinking, and saying when the cameras were off. Where Jackie could (and precisely doesn’t) go off the deep end is in this open interpretation: assigning emotions or stories to her life since there’s nothing and no one to say otherwise. The film is bookmarked by two very different interviews with Jackie: one, in 1962, centered around a televised tour of the White House, and the other two years later, at one of the Kennedy’s houses in Massachusetts after the assassination. In the former, she’s stiff and composed, reciting rehearsed lines through a tense smile which the Social Secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), reminds her to keep up. In the latter, she’s being interviewed by Theodore White (Billy Crudup), a reporter from Life magazine, one of three interviews she gave after her husband’s death. Here, she’s unkempt, smoking vigorously (a fact she forbids White to mention in the article), the epitome of a woman at her wit’s end.
The film and Portman alike take many of their respective cues from a 1964 Life magazine interview Jackie did with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to fill in the unknown spots with elegance and evenness. Despite their differences, these interviews provide the only measure of linear consistency in the film’s plot, and provide a rare insight into her world. Far from inundating the viewer with tawdry or underwhelming information about her, they carve out a more rounded portrait of Jackie during the most intense days of her life. The intimacy and detail with which Larrain chooses to depict in the film range from the sentimental to the somber, each presented with an equal amount of intrigue as the next. Jackie is dutifully respectful of the former First Lady’s grief and confusion without overstating her vulnerability – she is never made out to be a martyr, and neither is she exclusively framed as the conniving widow.
Indeed, the film doesn’t shy away from depicting Jackie at her most polarizing. She’s calm and contained when she approaches new liaison Jack Valenti (Max Casella) about the funeral procession, dictating her orders diplomatically, while in another sequence, she parades around the White House, smoking, drinking, and blaring music, appearing lost in a trance, completely unhinged. It’s Portman’s fearless performance of a woman at her breaking point, experiencing the slow, crushing slide from her immaculate position as the wife of the most powerful man on Earth that moves Jackie beyond the realm of the traditional biopic.
It was Onassis’ own (strategic?) efforts in constructing the concept of the Camelot era after JFK’s death (alluded to throughout the film) that makes the it that much more tangible. The fact that Kennedy’s presidency is already irreversibly linked with a serene, progressive idealism makes Jackie’s fall from grace that much more tragic, and believably so. Portman, in a staunch refusal to rely on the campy and the kitsch, delivers a performance that is at once tremendous and unnerving. In one scene you may pity her erratic, depressive defiance, while at the next marvel at her gentle resilience.
There’s hardly a scene without Portman in it, and even if she isn’t visible, she’s most certainly the topic of discussion, if not eavesdropping from across the room. This kind of obsession with a protagonist could be suffocating – not only are we never reprieved of Portman, but the plot depicts some of the most traumatizing series of events a person can endure, hiking up the tension in every scene, even in ones that occur before the assassination.
And yet, this is the film’s most powerful quality. Just as Jackie herself was unable to cut from the more serious bits, or to fade from the main event and dawdle alongside secondary characters, so too is the viewer strapped in alongside her, forced to feel what she felt, unable to turn away. This heightened focus turns what could have been an easily profitable, intensely boring biopic about one of them most revered figures of the 20th century into an unapologetically brutal character study of an individual experiencing the unimaginable.
In a sense, this 1964 Jackie is a shadow of her former self, recounting the most emotionally-wrought time in her life, but it is also here that the proverbial Chanel gloves come off. She’s biting, but honestly so. It’s the kind of rawness that was so carefully stitched up during the 1962 White House tour, and so swiftly torn apart after her husband’s death. These two Jackie’s, as poles of the same woman, are only accentuated by the tapestry of emotion that fills the middle ground.
The film itself seems to rest inside the extremes, motivating these emotional intensities while at the same time remaining outside the frenzy. Jackie takes an individual whose existence and experience is, at this point, common knowledge, and turns it on its head, more interested in peering into the dustier corners of her life instead of simply repackaging what is most visible. Jackie is a breathtaking blend of fact and suspicion, and depicts a life that is both highly recognizable and wholly unknowable.
Likening JFK’s presidency to a fairytale wouldn’t be completely erroneous, and certainly fifty years later, it would be difficult to try to upend any lingering romanticism that surrounds it. Yet tucked away in every fairytale are glimpses of fact and suggestions at a higher truth. Jackie takes this into stride, as a film that serves as a historical record as much as it does a tantalizing drama. Says Jackie, “People like to believe in fairytales,” her voice dry and sharp, with the shadow of a coy smile lingering through. As far as biopics go, Jackie does more than recount that great American fairytale – it makes you want to believe it, too.