What’s in your mind now? Helpless and horrified attendant to one of our nation’s greatest tragedies? Fashion plate with the pink pillbox hat? Visions of her windswept and clad in white alongside Aristotle Onassis on a boat? The dutiful host showcasing empty rooms now filled with lavish appointments?
We often clearly remember the strength after the positive turning points of modern political roles — in this case, the American First Lady — but rarely the fortitude of those at the tumultuous center of transition. Sentimental postscripts are easily conjured. Happenings in the hard moments of moving forward, or backward, are more of a crucible.
In Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín adopts an outsider’s fascination — peering inward on our past and process. His first English-language film stands alongside his own No and Neruda as some of the more pointed, poetic political filmmaking of our time. Noah Oppenheim’s immaculate screenplay cleanly, but not always coldly, dissects the ephemeral nature of influence, attention and respect afforded to Jackie Kennedy and ripped from her, even in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. It casts an unsentimental, unsettling and uncompromising eye on the intersection of personal grief and public duty. It illustrates how even the most powerful woman in the free world was expected to have a fallback plan within moments of the unfathomable … and smile in the face of it all with the graciousness of an appreciative hostess.
At times, Larraín’s visuals seem cast on the very unsteady wings of American consciousness itself, and the characterization of the film’s namesake is placed in the eminently capable hands of Natalie Portman, on whose face the camera often simply holds court.
Jackie represents the best film about any Kennedy since Oliver Stone’s JFK. But this isn’t about how Kennedy’s brain and Oswald’s bullet occupied the same cultural orbit. It fuels no conspiratorial fires but instead suggests our collective complicit collusion by stoking embers of the rose-colored Camelot era. This is not a safe, comfortable, amber-encased reminiscence people may want. The opening notes of Mica Levi’s score — by turns ominous about the system and warm about its subject — serve as a perfect cue. It’s a mesmerizing, insidious suggestion of how deep the rot may run and for how long it has done so.
The timeline cuts between Jackie Kennedy’s week-after interview with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), the political journalist who crafted the Camelot metaphor and the urgent hours after JFK’s murder. The former is no mere framing device. It cuts right to the quick of the cost of the affirmations many have held onto since that interview … and how little currency they may have carried from the start. Makeup and mannerisms aside, Portman’s performance here is even better than the one for which she already has an Oscar. When she blows smoke on the line “My husband was a great man,” it’s not an easy laugh line; JFK was just a man — occasionally great, occasionally maddening. Her turn is full of such incisive subversions of safe storytelling — reminders of her own failings and grace like end-table accoutrements you wouldn’t even notice until they’re gone and the room suddenly feeling emptier for it.
In its depiction of the latter, Jackie is forthrightly graphic … but only in the precise moments it needs to be and never gratuitously. As Jackie sits shaking hours later, still in her blood-smeared clothes, the brocade on the pillows blooms like the blood on her dress — suggesting violent patterns of American democracy that never go out of style.
Turning to the example of Abraham Lincoln, Jackie proposes a full-scale funeral procession — a show of solidarity to prop up a need to be seen as a woman, a wife, a mother, an American — in a show of fortitude that eludes a patriarchal power scramble unfolding before her. (Similarly is her demand for to-the-moment information dubbed morbidly opportunistic by men who turn to cowardice over comfort, a smug sense of superiority that resonates with a rancid chord yet today.)
Her struggle to see her wishes through — when any decision she made would be seen as selfish spectacle — plays as a sort of combat against dignity in ignorance and opiating comforts of faith. (No quarter comes even from a priest, played by John Hurt, whom she consults for spiritual salve — framed next to a river whose current, like her racing mind, never ceases.)
“The heartbroken, fatherless children are part of that,” she protests when grilled about the image she may be projecting with the procession. In its own way, and with similar proximity to showtunes, Jackie brilliantly wrestles with its subject’s legacy and story in the way Hamilton does with its own, but the resolution is nowhere near as rousing. Portman, Oppenheim and Larraín portray the precise moment when the will to put up the ideological fight leaves her — the idea that Camelot was her own romanticized notion of what she’d had to rationalize it and move on. Even White’s transcription of the Camelot motif exposes its immediate fraudulence.
In that mutually agreed-upon manufacturing of comfort and closure, Jackie Kennedy’s time as First Lady became a style to embrace, a frock to wear, a mausoleum to lock up and never crack open for reexamination — until now, with one of 2016’s greatest films.