Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) rides in the back of a ambulance following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy (Brody and Aiden Weinberg). She lists names to her companions and asks if anyone knows who they are and what they did. The driver shrugs. She then asks if they know who Abraham Lincoln is and they all have an answer. Jackie reveals every name she mentioned is a former President who was assassinated mid-term. Her husband is now part of this morbid club, but will he be remembered?
The clock is ticking on the legacy of JFK in Jackie; while how he died will be seared into the American psyche forever; the important work is establishing the legacy to ensure his Presidency is never forgotten. And the White House must always have a sitting President, Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) is sworn in while the ink on JFK’s death certificate is still wet; governance has no time to grieve. Director Pablo Larraín doesn’t fret over chronicling the facts, this is far from a biopic, it’s Jackie Kennedy in her own words as she sits down with a journalist, Theodore Harold White (Billy Crudup), to set the record straight (sort of) about what happened during the assassination and the days that followed.
Jackie takes control of the narrative around her husband’s presidency and death, editing the story in real time (she’d go on to be a book editor for major publishers later in her career); everything Larraín shows in flashbacks from the interview is through the filter of Jackie’s recollection that she wants cherry-picked by White, but only with her approval. Jackie asks for a section of White’s notes to be read back to her and he describes how she told her story while dragging on a cigarette. Despite constantly smoking throughout the entire interview, Jackie tells White, “by the way, I don’t smoke.”
History is being crafted in Jackie and Larraín stacks the film with reminders of how it’s shaped and how stories endure. Larraín, and screenwriter, Noah Oppenheim, are far less concerned with biographical side of the Kennedys’ story, but how it grew in stature to the heights of being defined as “Camelot” beyond JFKs death. A standard biopic would pursue scandal to create drama that ignores the trauma of the assassination – that provides enough tragedy for a lifetime. We know JFK wasn’t perfect, Jackie knows it, Larraín doesn’t dwell on it and allows the First Lady to work through those flaws as part of the grieving process.
Scattered throughout Jackie are reenactments, blended with real footage, of the television special A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy where Jackie takes Charles Collingwood on a tour of the recently renovated White House. We see the television broadcast and then Larraín cuts to show the behind-the-scenes work of the film crew. White House Social Secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), gives Jackie direction from behind the camera gesturing for the First Lady to smile. Portman nails the forced beauty pageant style smile; smile like you mean it Jackie. Tuckerman trips over one of the cords powering the equipment as a reminder we are seeing multiple reflections of a moment in time coming together; a film within a film. And the reflections multiply when Jackie reveals the White House overhaul was done to bring a sense of history into the building after there was no trace of Presidents and First Ladies of the past within its walls. Jackie’s dedication to recreating the Lincoln’s bedroom is ominous. History repeats and it has a twisted sense of humour.
Underlying it all is Jackie’s grief that’s personified by Portman’s performance. In a scene where Jackie carries a birthday cake to her son while singing happy birthday, Portman shows Jackie’s immaculate etiquette to fulfil her duties as a parent (a microcosm for her loyalty to her duties as First Lady) while showing an emotional vacancy in her eyes. Larraín uses Jackie’s grief to ponder how the living keep the memories of lost loved ones alive while forging ahead. The Kennedys had four children, but two, Patrick and Arabella, died during infancy. Who will remember them? The line from the musical Hamilton came to mind: “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” When JFK is laid to rest, he’s joined by Patrick and Arabella at a gravesite in Arlington Cemetery; now the resting place of Jackie and John F. Kennedy Jr. as well. Side by side they are united and will be remembered.
It’s from the darkest moments of Jackie that Larraín lets the light in. The ability for the past to reconcile with itself while the survivors of tragedy take control of their story and endure. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography had me weeping as Jackie chases her children in a backyard toward a sunset, he also got me earlier when Jackie was running aimlessly through a foggy cemetery; a phenomenal contrast, Fontaine’s eye throughout all of Jackie is immaculate. Running parallel to Fontaine’s stunning work is Mica Levi’s equally impressive score that wanes with unease as if all her instruments are going out of tune but correct themselves just in time.
If the winners write history, the survivors become guardians of the legacy. I live near a beautiful landscaped area in a park that’s dedicated to JFK; a headstone with an inscription and dedication sits there. Melbourne is 16,370 kilometres from where the Kennedy family is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, but a part of their memory sits in a park, in another country, on the other side of the world. Larraín gets to the heart of historical machinations with Jackie. Unforgettable work.
The Popcorn Junkie