A lot of the people who lived through the 60s are almost unanimous in their belief that the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was one of the most important days of their lifetimes… why? It’s certainly a human tragedy but people die every day and often in much larger numbers. Was it a matter of all the great things Kennedy promised being compromised by his death? Maybe, but Lyndon Johnson didn’t really do too bad a job of carrying on Kennedy’s legacy on civil rights, cold warfare, and putting men on the moon and the argument that Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten us mired in Vietnam is… debatable. From a sheer policy perspective the murder of his brother may well have been the more impactful turning point. No, the legacy of that assassination and its impact on a generation is a lot more complicated and deeply psychological in nature and had a lot to do with just how good Kennedy made people feel both as a leader and as a person. It wasn’t so much that he had policies that were universally loved (quite the opposite, there were definitely people who hated him) but something about him just made people feel good about their country and about the times they lived in. He felt like someone who just did things right, he was young, handsome, had proven to be courageous during the war, and perhaps most notably he had a seemingly perfect family… and the fact that all of this may have been a bit of a charade is almost incidental. It’s an interesting little web of national iconography to untangle and the new film Jackie, while essentially a “biopic” is really all about getting to the bottom of where the truth lies in all of this.
The film begins about a week after the assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) invites famed journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) to allow him an exclusive (and heavily edited and micromanaged) interview for Life Magazine, the interview that would famously cement the “Camelot” interpretation of the Kennedy years. This interview acts as a framing story for the rest of the movie, which recreates some of her most famous moments like the making of the 1962 “Tour of the Whitehouse” special but mainly focuses on the days immediately after the assassination where she needs to both grieve her husband’s death and reckon with the meaning of it all while also planning the extravagant state funeral and occasionally clashing with titans like Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant). These events do not get played strictly in chronological order and there’s even a sort of framing story within a framing story as we frequently cut to a discussion she has with a priest (John Hurt).
Jackie was directed by a guy named Pablo Larraín who is probably best known for his 2013 film No, which looked at a similarly impactful if much more upbeat turning point in the history of his native Chile. That film employed an interesting technique where it seamlessly integrated a lot of archival footage into his scripted film and he’s clearly interested in the way that images can implant themselves into a national consciousness. He does something similar with this new film by using famous Kennedy era footage ranging from the “Tour of the Whitehouse” special to the Zapruder Film. It’s a little different from No, which was actually shot in its entirety on camera equipment that resembled the video quality of 80s news broadcasts so that this all blended together while the majority of Jackie was shot on Super-16 and clearly differs from the archival footage and the scenes shot to resemble said archival footage. The goal seems to be to take these images that are burned into the public consciousness and give them context, to show the human side of the iconography.
I hesitate to even spend too much time talking about Natalie Portman’s performance in the movie as I do fear that this one element has come to dominate discussions of the film to the detriment of everything else, but it is indeed stunning. On the shallow basis of imitation she does indeed manage to capture the looks and voice of Mrs. Kennedy but what’s even more impressive are the many aspects of the character she needs to convey. During the shooting of the “Tour of the Whitehouse” sections we see her as she was as a first lady, which is to say someone who was playing up her shallower traits and putting on the persona of the perfect housewife. During the reenactments of her tumultuous post-assassination period we see her in the depths of grief and managing to conjure a dutiful dignity as she fights to make sure she’s heard over the powerful voices of people like Robert Kennedy. During the conversation with Father McSorley we see her at her most candid and most introspective; leaving little doubt that there’s more to her than the “socialite” she was seen to be by the public. Finally, during the interview framing story we see her at her sharpest and most canny even if that isn’t always entirely apparent to the interviewer.
That interview section is, in fact, the most important part of the film even if it wouldn’t seem to be initially because it’s where the film’s central themes of legacy and myth-making comes most to the forefront. The man interviewing Jackie is a seasoned journalist who was in China reporting on the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, and yet Jackie is still able to get him to write a story that he would later call “misreading of history” through sheer force of personality. The movie certainly has no illusions about the fact that the Kennedys were less perfect than they appeared and Jackie goes into that during her conversation with the priest, but the movie also doesn’t entirely dismiss the Camelot version of those years as a cynical lie either. John F. Kennedy might not have been a perfect husband but it’s clear that he did mean a lot to Jackie and she did quite genuinely believe him to be a great man even if that greatness didn’t necessarily manifest itself in exactly the way that the American people thought it did. In other words Jackie would admit that the American Camelot was indeed a myth when looked at as the kind of literal truth that a journalist like Theodore Harold White would ordinarily demand (the “truth of accountants” as Werner Herzog would put it), but that in a more poetic way there was a truth to it both in her own heart and in the hearts of the American people and when the legend becomes fact you print the legend. The fact that she was using a literal legend in her analogy would seem to betray that it was this kind of truth she was shooting for.
Simply as a movie Jackie may have a bit of a hard time finding its audience. It’s not the simple nostalgic biopic that a lot of people are going to walk in expecting, which may be off-putting to people looking for something a little warmer and less challenging. At the same time its technique may prove to not be quite as openly iconoclastic and novel as the kind of fare critics really yearn to champion and that could leave it as something of a Jan Brady this awards season but that is perhaps a mistake because it is in fact a very smart and in its own sneaky way very relevant film. I mentioned earlier that I used to find it a little odd that a whole generation were so invested in Kennedy and considered his death such a major event. The key phrase there is “used to.” In 2008 our generation got its own Camelot in the form of Barak Obama, a president who like Kennedy might not go down in history as having an ideal resume of accomplishments but who makes up for it by simply being the kind of leader we want as a people. While he was in office it was easy to think “everything’s going to be alright” and while everything he stood for didn’t end in bloody tragedy, the fact that he’s being replaced by a crass vulgarian who revels in uncertainty is a similar shock and a trauma that may well stick with my generation for decades to come. That Trump was able to do this by creating a series of counter-factual “truths” is of course a bitter irony and one that gives me pause when I think about praising the myth-making presented in Jackie. There is, however, a difference between spinning a story that makes people feel good about their country and themselves and spinning lies that divide people and exploit toxic fears. If anything the next four years are likely to make us mourn all the more for “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”