The Political Is Horrifically Personal In 'Jackie'
By Andrea Thompson
History is a funny thing. The more we think we know it, the less we seem to think about it. Take the assassination of JFK. Who doesn't know about an event that has now become so iconic? The handsome President, the beautiful First Lady next to him in the pink suit, the bullet, the conspiracy.
Indeed, it's so well-known that few of us seem to really consider the horror of it all. What it was to lose a President to such violence. To be sitting next to your husband one minute and trying to hold his skull together the next. The splatter of blood on your face and clothes, the evidence of your loved one being wrenched from your very arms.
Yes, there have been countless movies made, books written, TV specials aired, articles published, and conspiracies deliciously rehashed, about Jackie Kennedy and her golden husband. And that was before the Internet Age. What more could possibly be said? Well, the mindset of director Pablo Larraín of “No,” “The Club,” and “Neruda” is not that there's more to say, but that there's more to explore.
Jackie Kennedy did become an American icon, but she did not exactly become known to us. The portrait we have of her is one of a lady frozen in amber: eternally young, graceful, fashionable, and achingly lovely in her time of grief and mourning. But Larraín's goal is to shatter the image so we can see the woman and share her trauma. He makes “Jackie” into a sort of horror story, with nearly everyone onscreen haunted by the ghostly presence of JFK. Small wonder that his role in this movie is more of a cameo.
However, Larraín wants us to not only share her trauma, but her state of mind. In keeping with the steely fragility of the First Lady's psyche, the film seamlessly flashes back to various points in her political life, as we see how the legend of Camelot began. Such a mentality also needs a framing device, which the movie provides in the form of Jackie's 1963 interview with “Life Magazine,” as we get the added benefit of a woman who is still grieving, but recovered enough to effectively spar and hold her own with a journalist bent on getting a story.
Of course, all of this would be nothing without Natalie Portman in the title role. If I've waited this long to mention her, it's because she doesn't play Jackie Kennedy as much as embody her, in a performance that completely blows away her work in “Black Swan.” In Portman's capable hands, we see a woman at once unknown (despite our best efforts) for having to mourn so publicly and in such lavish surroundings, but also intensely poignant in the way she must tell her children their father will never be home again, struggle just to define just what his legacy will be, and reconcile the fact that although she benefited greatly from their mostly loving relationship, it wasn't what she wanted it to be. She has to find her own voice at the worst time possible, when nearly everyone around her is the most invested in her being the woman they want her to be.
Boosted by similarly amazing performances from Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, John Hurt as a priest Jackie confides in, and a nearly unrecognizable Greta Gerwig as Jackie's loyal assistant, friend, and confidante, its only failings lie in being a bit too on-the-nose at certain points. Luckily, Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine are not only masters of the more subtle art of effectively conveying pain and loss, but for their understanding that what made the Kennedys so beloved is that they understood that so much of politics itself involved performing, and how badly the public seemed to need the narrative they provided.