Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Caspar Phillipson
MPAA Rating: (for brief strong violence and some language)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 12/2/16 (limited); 12/9/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 8, 2016
The press calls her "Mrs. John F. Kennedy." Whether she's leading a televised tour of the White House or planning the largest funeral procession the capital has seen since the one for Abraham Lincoln, they treat her as if she is defined by her husband.
She knows this is the way people see her. She is keenly aware of the fact that whatever her life could have been as a person unto herself ended the moment she married Mr. Kennedy. When she did, she knew that would become her life. He had plans for his life, and her plans became inseparably entwined with his. It was an agreement that they made together and, also, that she made with herself.
Then, in an instant, he is gone. With a single bullet, the plans he had devised for himself, for his family, for the country, and for the world at large come to an end. They are left unfinished, and their fate is uncertain.
President Kennedy has died. Mrs. Kennedy remains.
It's a simple question at the heart of Jackie: Now that her husband is dead, who is Jackie Kennedy? The Jackie of Pablo Larraín's film, played with courageous emotional honesty by Natalie Portman, certainly doesn't know. Even in death, her husband and his influence still hold a tight grip on this woman. She does understand this, because, again, she did agree to it.
She expected, though, a life outside of politics with this man at some point—a normal life in which they could be a family. Instead, she is planning his funeral and realizing that she has a much larger responsibility to her dead husband than what needs to be done with his body. This is part of her agreement, even if it was something of which she likely never conceived. If she ever did, it was only in her worst nightmares.
Noah Oppenheim's screenplay is not a biography of the former First Lady. It's a character piece that takes three moments in Jackie Kennedy's life and plays them against each other (The era itself is recreated in cinematic terms by Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine's usage of a period-appropriate aspect ratio and the film's grainy, hazy color palette).
The first is an interview with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup), which takes place at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, about a week after the President's funeral. The second is a filmed tour of the White House in 1962, after the completion of an extensive restoration of the residence overseen by the First Lady. The third—the three days between Kennedy's assassination and his funeral—is far more than a moment, although, in terms of mood and purpose, it plays like an extended one.
That section of the story is the film's central one. It is about Jackie's shock, grief, and uncertainty, as well as her determination to ensure that her husband's funeral is the one she believes the man deserves. The problem, as stated by President Kennedy's brother/confidant/Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), is that Kennedy's presidency ended before he could do anything of historical worth.
The conversation around Kennedy, even in the hours and days after his assassination, has turned from policy to legacy. If his brother is going to be remembered, Bobby notes, it will be for the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs—one crisis that Kennedy stopped and another that he started. The things that he should have been known for—civil rights, the space program, and handling Vietnam—will be passed on to Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), who seems pragmatically hasty to move past this terrible business.
Jackie understands this, too. As she rides in the back of an ambulance to bring Kennedy's body to White House, she asks the ambulance drivers if they know who James Garfield and William McKinley are. They don't. Lincoln, obviously, is a name they know, because, unlike those other assassinated heads of state, he did things that are worth remembering.
She knows her husband is not in the same historical league as Lincoln, although she believes he could have been. That belief is enough, and that's the angle from which she approaches the way she will set out to frame the narrative of Kennedy's presidency, plans, and murder.
The film is wise in the way it sees Jackie as a constructor of narratives, and it's tragic in its recognition that those narratives have little to do with her. The other two sections continue that notion, although at times when Jackie's mind is more her own—unhindered by the immediate devastation of her husband's murder. She's creating a story for the public in those sequences, too. The tour shows the glamour and history of the mansion. Jackie especially wanted items from Lincoln, which had to be hunted down because his widow sold most of his belongings after his death to survive. In the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination, it almost seems like prophecy. The sad fate of Mary Todd Lincoln frightens Jackie, who no longer, in her eyes, even has a home to call her own.
The interview scenes explicitly lay out the concept of constructed narratives. Jackie is open and bluntly honest with the journalist. She knows that he wants to hear what it was like to be sitting next to the President in that convertible on the streets of Dallas, and she tells him—and Larraín shows us—in graphic, heartbreaking detail. Then she tells the journalist that he won't be printing any of that. She wants him to write about the promise of her husband, what his loss means to the country, and how a song from Camelot kept coming to her on those lonely nights after he was killed. That has a nice, appropriate ring to it, as a way to describe the Kennedys' time in the White House: Camelot.
This is the film's grand-scale theme, but it's also intimately aware of the vast difference in the ways we mourn in public and in private. In its portrayal of Jackie Kennedy, it offers an example of uncommon bravery in this regard. She must grieve for her husband on the biggest stage imaginable, and she must do so in a way that provides comfort to a grieving nation, while honoring the memory of a man about whom she is torn. She tells a priest (John Hurt), that she knows about the affairs, but she also knew her husband as a loving father to their two children. Jackie believed she would have time to reconcile those disparate elements of the man.
Instead, she must grieve—alone and hidden, separated from any genuine comfort from another person. She has become a symbol of grief. Portman's performance and Jackie as a whole chip away at the shell of that icon of decorum and pity, presenting us with a more comprehensive understanding of the pain and loneliness of her loss, yes, but also of the foresight and strength to create an icon of her husband.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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