Camelot is born in media-savvy biopic about JFK’s grieving widow
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig
Jacqueline Kennedy is one of the most powerful figures in pop cultural history. And yet, for all we think we know about her, we actually know very little. Despite being at the forefront of one of the most seminal events in mid-century America—the assassination of her husband, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy—she was a very private figure. Few knew much about the daughter of a stockbroker and a socialite before she married JFK. And she all but withdrew from public life after his death. Nonetheless, the image of the graceful, well-spoken brunette in the pink Chanel suit remains indelible in many people’s minds.
With the up-
Portman certainly looks the part, all cheekbones and fortitude. Her accent takes a moment to get used to, however. Portman nails that impossibly erudite, patrician tone most people recognize from Jackie’s famous 1962 White House Christmas tour. It’s one of the few extended pieces of video of the woman, and the place most people recognize her soft-spoken East Coast cadence from. The voice, at times, feels fake. But that’s more or less the point. The tour is recreated here in all its on-camera stiffness, and it’s a fine counterpoint to the harder-edged, less blue-blooded version of Jackie we see later. The idea is that Jackie spends a lot of time speaking and acting the way people expect a First Lady to. She has a public persona that runs nearly 24 hours a day. And “that voice” is part of it. It’s all about keeping up appearances—which is more or less the point of Larraín’s film. John F. Kennedy and Jackie were the first President and First Lady to exist in the media spotlight. In many ways this couple wrote the rules for modern, telegenic fame and fortune.
Jackie, thankfully, is no standard-issue biopic. The lean, laser-focussed narrative is centered almost entirely around an interview Jackie grants with an anonymous, hand-picked journalist (played by Billy Crudup). The interview takes place in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination. It is, in part, a story about grief. Jackie is a devoted wife dealing with the shocking loss of her husband. And she’s forced to deal with it in the most public way possible. How does one grieve on a personal level when the entire country is grieving on a public scale? Larraín (and his screenwriter Noah Oppenheim from The Maze Runner and Allegiant, oddly enough) bring Jackie’s often-conflicted emotional struggle to life by focussing on the details.
As the interview progresses, the film free-floats through Jackie’s memories, choosing a few key moments on which to dwell—none of them predating the Kennedys’ time in the White House. It’s the sharp, little details, not the broad, biographical brushstrokes that bring this story to life: Jackie desperately scrubbing her nails in the sink of an airplane bathroom after the assassination; Jackie obsessively quizzing a stunned Secret Service agent about the caliber of the bullet that killed her husband; Jackie spotting LBJ and Lady Bird going over wallpaper samples as she packs up and prepares to leave the White House. It’s these small moments that give the film a powerful emotional weight. It is, at times, brutally, intimately sad.
But the film—like Jackie herself—isn’t entirely concerned with mourning and self-pity. What it’s really trying to capture is the moment that Jackie fabricated—basically from whole cloth—the myth of the “Camelot Era.” Even as she’s lost and reeling from her husband’s murder, even while she refuses to wash his blood from her suit, she’s weighing the future. What will her husband’s legacy be? What will future scholars write about the Kennedys’ time in office. Despite being elected on a wave of democratic hope, Jack Kennedy spent barely two years in office. He had little time to accomplish anything. He solved the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he also kind of started it with the Bay of Pigs Invasion. His progressive proposals became part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but that was signed into law by LBJ. Fearing that her husband will be lost to time, Jackie sets out to write the history book herself.
In talking to the Reporter, she makes no bones about the narrative she’s about to lay out. It will be her story, in her own words. And if she doesn’t like the way it comes out, she’ll rewrite it. Nothing will be published without her say-so. It’s not that she’s lying about her husband’s legacy. It’s just that she’s ... polishing it, giving it a perspective before the perspective is imposed by outside forces.
Jackie could easily have been simple Oscar bait, with its star giving a outsized performance and shedding tears all over some excellent costumes and sets. Instead, Jackie is an intellectual, visually stylized exercise in nostalgia and myth-