Jackie

Released (in Australia) 2017; Directed by Pablo Larrain; Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup.

 Jackie is a dramatisation of the private and public battles of Jackie Kennedy between the assassination of her husband, The President John F. Kennedy, and his funeral. I was completely absorbed in this film, partly because it was a sumptuous period piece and also because it delved into two key interests of mine- the nation and the way its myths are made. I would go so far as to say that this is the central preoccupation of Jackie.

When I went looking for a reliable biography of Jackie, I was confronted by a canon of spurious gossip which further obscured the real woman, whoever that may be, with mythology, intrigue, and salacious rumour. Did she have an affair with Bobby? Did she really eat a jacket potato with beluga caviar every day? One reviewer of a particular biography quipped that her sex life was examined so thoroughly within its pages that he felt ‘gynecologically acquainted with her.’

I feel that a serious examination of the lives of the Kennedy women as individuals in their own right is a positive development in our ongoing appraisal of that family’s enduring legacy and mystique. Incidentally, I read a biography of JFK’s sister Kathleen, affectionately known as Kick, during 2016, and it shone a whole new light on the dynamics within the Kennedy family. The film Jackie did a good job of walking the line between portraying Jackie as an individual with her own agency, her own ambitions and her own career, and the way she was disempowered by being part of the Kennedy dynasty and through the institution of the American presidency.

Larrain also achieved a constuctive tension in the representation of Jackie as both knowable and elusive. Being an iconic figure, the general public has felt they have a licence to claim they knew her intimately. This is perhaps demonstrated in the commentary about the film, in which some have canned Natalie Portman’s breathy accent as too camp. I contend that, while verisimilitude is important in biopics, there are more important claims about history at stake here, and we would do well to reinterrogate how much we know about Jackie and the Kennedy era, as I believe the film prompts us to do. Her mystique is stripped away to reveal her many facets: a woman who fell in love with a man from a powerful and ambitious family; a mother who lost two babies; who was cheated on by her husband and who was at times lonely, yet put on a mask and appeared in public faithfully by the President’s side; and who wanted to raise the Presidency to the level of royalty so that Americans could feel proud of their political institutions.

But to the aesthetics. The film was visually sensuous and historically atmospheric. Her personal style and that of the 1960s is recreated brightly but not luridly, and with sophistication. She appears throughout the movie in her iconic pink Chanel suit, but is shown to be greater than the reductive reproduction of this image has suggested over the years. The portrayal of the disorientating atmosphere in the aftermath of the assassination is assisted by Mica Levi’s score. The connotations of the music are of disintegration and of a reality sliding out of reach. This is also complemented by the hand-held camera and extensive use of flashbacks, which meld fact, emotion and myth. Besides the assassination itself, which is analysed from multiple perspectives and in brutal, gory detail, many key events within JFK’s reign are recreated, including the famous concert featuring cellist Pablo Casal, Jackie’s restoration of the White House, and her participation in a 1961 CBS documentary showing the interiors of the White House to the American people. Holding the fragments together is a recreation of her interview with Theodore White of Time Magazine, who went on to write an article that made Camelot synonymous with the Kennedy era. References to Camelot are present throughout the film, which I believe draw attention to how the film is both an un-picking of the Kennedy mythology, but how, as a cultural artefact, it can also produce new mythologies.

Jackie is shown to be concerned with the active construction of public memory about JFK’s presidency, rather than as a passive recipient of public affection and sympathy. Throughout the interview with the journalist Theodore White (Crudup), she asserts control over what he is allowed to reproduce in print. She was once a journalist, she reminds him, and she knows how these things work. She asks whether memory becomes fact merely because it is written down, and later states, astutely, “I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real.” Throughout the interview, which unfolds between flashbacks of the assassination and its aftermath, she retains this critical understanding of the way image and memory can be manipulated. After chain smoking through a series of questions, she informs White, “I don’t smoke,” and after recounting the brutal details of the gunshot wound and the moment she realises her husband was dead, she says, “don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that.” Furthermore, in relation to her renovation of the White House and reacquisition of antique furniture for the Lincoln room, which her husband disapproved of, she astutely observes, “objects and artefacts last for longer than people. And they represent important ideas in history, identity, beauty.”

I also felt compelled to question what it was that Jackie wanted both herself and her husband to be remembered for. She is immediately preoccupied with the memorialisation of his life and death, and, travelling in the hearse with the coffin and Bobby, she questions the drivers about whether they remember assassinated Presidents other than Abraham Lincoln. In her grief it is understandable that she wants to exert control over JFK’s legacy, given the way he was cruelly ripped from her. She says, “it had to be some silly little communist. If he’d been killed for some principle at least it would have meant something.” This is contrasted with Bobby (Sarsgaard) who expresses visceral frustration and regret at how little he perceived his brother achieved by not pulling out of Vietnam, and by manufacturing the missile crisis with Cuba which he was then forced to intervene in.

Jackie admits at the end that the funerary procession through the streets she planned in defiance of the new administration and the intelligence services was as much for herself as for her late husband. While this could be dismissed as self-absorbed, perhaps it is also understandable, as she has many things to mourn about the end of her role as First Lady, and had to struggle to be heard amidst the machinery of state and the pull of Kennedy family tradition. She is immediately redundant upon her husband’s death. Lyndon Johnson is sworn in on the plane as they are travelling back to Washington, heralding the dawn of a new era. This scene is filmed with a sense of claustrophobia, which conveys the sense that there is no longer room for her.  Later, Bobby argues with Johnson’s aid, who wants the oval office to be cleared out before JFK has been buried. Rose Kennedy wants Jack to be buried in Massachusetts, Jackie wants him to rest at Arlington.  On one level Jackie speaks matter-of-factly to Theodore White about the realities of life as a first lady- “a first lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. Its inevitable”-the lived experience is harder to bear. She is shown at her most vulnerable and intensely alone washing her husband’s blood off her suit and body on the plane and in the shower, and packing up her possessions while self-medicating with pills and alcohol and listening to her husband’s favourite record, Camelot. She tries on her dresses as she packs boxes, which serves as a potent symbol of her loss of status and influence.

There is also a sense that Jackie is trying to hold on her to her dignity. With the loss of her husband, she is technically homeless and worries about how she will put her children through school. When disembarking the plane she refuses to hide away and insists on going out “the usual way.” In conversations with a priest (John Hurt), she acknowledges the unpleasant side of her husband’s character, including infidelity. He tells her to take comfort in the good memories; she says “I can’t. They’re mixed in with all the others.” In many ways, these words clinch the film’s message: that history is made up of both the good and the bad, and the glorification of an era or administration, like a nation, is a fiction. Jackie wants to elevate Jack to the status of royalty, but understands that tradition needs time. Throughout the interview, she shares that the stage show Camelot was her husband’s favourite. Reprinted in the article, this claim resulted in the Kennedy era being known as the Camelot era, an association which further works to obfuscate fact with tradition, and provoke nostalgia rather than critical appraisal of JFK’s legacy. As Jackie says, “Maybe that’s what they’ll all believe now. Camelot. We all like to believe in fairytales.”

The film itself is so intensely preoccupied with the examination of memory that every scene is pregnant with meaning. This, combined with the unrelentingly grim subject matter, can make one feel beaten over the head by the end of the film. However, it remains captivating and poignant, with a superb performance by Natalie Portman. At the end I felt my preconceptions about Jackie and JFK’s assassination had been dismantled, but the disorientating nature of the film resulted in me being unsure of what images or “facts” should replace what I had previously thought. In a way, Larrain takes us on a ride through a part of history where everything belongs to mythology. Perhaps, as the journalist Theodore White says at the outset, it is enough to settle for a story that is believable. Or maybe the film, like the Time article with Camelot, will give rise to a new mythology about these iconic figures.

Further reading:

Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism by James Piereson.

Kick by Paula Byrne.