With ‘Jackie,’ We Say Goodbye To The First Lady We Thought We Knew
In the more than 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, conspiracies about his death have circulated and truths about his life—both public and private—have been revealed. And yet the Kennedy era is as enigmatic and captivating as ever, with one person from that time period remaining the most enigmatic and captivating of all: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Her likeness has graced the silver screen nearly 20 times, but no film has gone as deeply into her mind as Pablo Larraín's Jackie. It's magnetic, concise, and challenges our ideas of what a biopic can be and, ultimately, who Jackie Kennedy was.
Taking place over the three days following JFK's assassination in Dallas, Jackie is a stunning character study that does well to not beg for sympathy for its grieving and impossibly composed protagonist. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine's tight shots of star Natalie Portman's face zero in on the frantic, high-strung hours leading up to JFK's burial. Mica Levi's score sneers and swells with a drama that's uneasy yet refined. It's Portman who's running the show, though.
Legacy plays a central role here, with Jackie hoping to cement her husband's as one of poise and beauty through a funeral of much pomp and circumstance; her aim is to make her husband's life one of mythic proportions, a tale of legend and poetry. Others' hopes are more prosaic: Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), for example, fervently hopes to maintain good political standing.
It is Jackie, though, who understands the way history is written and, as such, takes charge of the myth-making by recounting the days surrounding and including the assassination to a journalist and insisting on having final edit. This is where the legend of Camelot was born. It's in these scenes and ones where Jackie is alone wandering the White House that we come to understand how in control she was and how tactical she could be. Beneath her quiet, etiquette school-trained public persona was a woman aware of her privilege, and the power and responsibility that comes with it, and seething frustration toward marriage and infidelity the culture around her told her to look past. Portman plays to that complexity with aplomb.
Tragedy is a cornerstone of our existence. We grow and sometimes even thrive on it because of the empathy it elicits and the lessons it teaches us about humanity—our own and that of other people. Jackie has suffered many tragedies, but the movie does not wallow in them; Jackie is not a tragic woman. Jackie's goal is not to elicit empathy, but instead to ask the audience to consider history and the extraordinarily ephemeral and malleable quality of it all. Legacy, after all, is just a story waiting for edits.