By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter
Directed by Pablo Larraín
NOT ALL superheroes wear capes. Some of them wear Chanel suits.
Jackie (2016), a biographical film about US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) focuses on the days immediately after the assassination of her husband, US President John F. Kennedy (played by Caspar Phillipson) on Nov. 22, 1963. One week after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy gave an interview to Theodore H. White for Life magazine. Credited in the film as The Journalist, he is played by Billy Crudup as a composite of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, along with historians Arthur Schlesinger and William Manchester, who themselves interviewed the former First Lady. This interview serves as a framing device for Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s first English-language film, working with a script by Noah Oppenheim, and a score by Mica Levi.
There have been many films, books, television series about the assassinated president and his family, but many view his wife, Jackie, as merely a supporting character, or even a highly attractive human prop. This film places an almost intrusive focus on the woman who was beside him as he climbed to the presidency, and beside him, quite literally, when he died in the backseat of an open-top limousine.
I had the experience of seeing the film in Dallas, and driving on the very street where the movie’s defining crime was committed. The building where JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald sat and waited for his victim has since been converted into a museum, while two X’s mark the spots on the road where the president was shot twice.
I use the word “superhero” in the first line of this essay to describe the film’s subject since I noted that the glamorous figure of Jackie was stripped bare in this film and given the “gritty reboot” treatment, similar to that of many superhero movies of the past decade. In gritty reboots, the superhero well may be an extraordinary figure, but he’s covered up first in a shroud of angsty mundanity, to be shed off through blood, sweat, tears, and incisive introspection, before finally coming to deserve to wear their superhero suits. The real Mrs. Kennedy’s couture, of course, could hardly be described as mundane, but in this movie, her superhero suit would be the pink Chanel outfit splashed with her husband’s blood, which both the real and reel Mrs. Kennedy refused to take off, daring their enemies (she really said this) to “Let them see what they’ve done.”
The interview, as a framing device, makes it so that the events of the previous days are laid out in a nonlinear fashion as in the feverish conversation of a woman dazed, confused, and in shock. In the span of an hour and 40 minutes, we are taken through Mrs. Kennedy’s televised White House tour, concerts, and dinners at the White House, the actual moment of assassination, and the theatrical funeral organized by Mrs. Kennedy. The funeral and the interview are of equal importance in the movie: seen as a supporting character in history, it’s revealed in these sequences that Mrs. Kennedy was the one responsible for building her husband’s image as a great man worthy of emulation — who’s a supporting character now?
This same conversation depicted in the film would later be remembered for cementing her and her husband’s status as heads of an American, modern-age Camelot, modeled after the legendary glittering court of King Arthur. The Broadway musical from which Mrs. Kennedy pulls these lines: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot,” of course, makes several appearances in the film. One of the most unforgettable uses of the musical in the film was when Mrs. Kennedy tried on several outfits while intoxicated and in tears, while the song played in the background — grasping to remember her own part in that court. The film then makes for great sensorial pleasure: Mrs. Kennedy, as a patron of the arts, lived a life as curated as the artistic works she promoted. This is seen in the set design, which takes its cues from Mrs. Kennedy’s extensive renovation of the White House (still seen today), and the film’s costuming. The film was nominated for Best Costume Design at the 2017 Oscars, and won that award at the BAFTA.
Speaking of awards, Ms. Portman was nominated for Best Actress for this role in the 89th Academy Awards, but lost to Emma Stone for her work in La La Land. Some would criticize Ms. Portman’s acting as stiffly theatrical, and that voice — that high, breathy, purring voice that she used in the film. But that’s the thing: that’s how people saw Jacqueline Kennedy. If anything, that accent just shows how much Ms. Portman was committed to her role, embodying the real Mrs. Kennedy’s speaking patterns that reflected her cosmopolitan upbringing in some of America’s best homes, her transatlantic travels, and her own theatricality. That part of Mrs. Kennedy didn’t always translate well, and left her open to misinterpretation: much like Ms. Portman’s acting in that film. In an acting masterwork, Ms. Portman, to this reporter’s interpretation, made someone too real, to her own detriment.
At a superficial glance, the movie is simply about a period in history as seen through the eyes of an oft-ignored player. However, Mr. Larrain’s vision and Mr. Oppenheim’s script provide many, many layers which might be intimated in one scene, but its imprimatur can last through the whole film. For example: it’s a movie about image-making, and the writing of history as it happens, but it’s also about private and public grief. It’s a feminist movie, showing Jackie using femininity as a weapon against the tough White House men, but then it’s also a movie about faith, fate, and destiny (seen in the conversations between Jackie and a Catholic priest, played by the late John Hurt in his last acting role). I can even squeeze in that it’s also an observation on journalism, and how much hold power has over truth: “I don’t smoke,” Mrs. Kennedy corrects the journalist’s proposed draft, while lighting a cigarette for herself.
If I’m comparing this biopic to a superhero movie, then I must justify why fashion icon Jacqueline Kennedy becomes a true superhero. She may not have shed blood, but she was splashed with it. Lady Jeanne Campbell, covering the funeral for The London Evening Standard said, “Jacqueline Kennedy has given the American people… one thing they have always lacked: Majesty.” Confronted by her own pain, she absorbed the shock and grief of a nation and reflected it back to them, showing an example of grace and stoicism in the face of uncertainty. That’s heroism.