Jackie is a film about a great American tragedy… but it’s not really about the tragedy at all.
The life, presidency, and assassination of John F. Kennedy have been depicted and explored many times. Novels, non-fiction books, films, comics, stage plays, television specials, and songs… even modern media from YouTube videos to Tumblr blogs find themselves home to countless tributes, factual analyses, and conspiracies.
Personally, though, I’ve never seen or read anything that focuses on the assassination from the perspective of the First Lady, who saw her life and the world turn upside down that day in Dallas.
Pablo Larrain’s film Jackie does just that, framing the story of the assassination and its aftermath through an interview with Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) by LIFE magazine reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). The film was scripted by Noah Oppenheim and premiered in 2016.
As stated above, Jackie isn’t really a film about an assassination. It’s a fascinating portrait of a grieving woman, and a thought-provoking explanation of a wide variety of themes. The nature of life in the public eye and as a part of a powerful family isn’t shied away from, but grief and the differences between private life and outward persona are more deeply explored. It all stayed on my mind long after the film ended.
Most interesting to me was an aspect of the film’s exploration of grief: Jackie’s reconciliation of the good and the bad in her husband and in her marriage. She acknowledges the imperfection of their relationship, reflecting on what they could have done differently, from communicating more effectively to treating each other more affectionately. In these moments of contemplation, the prominent political standing of the family is forgotten, making way for an honest portrayal of the complexity of humans and our relationships. I can’t say that anyone who has experienced grief will relate, since it’s a different experience for everyone, but this push-and-pull between the happiness lost and the pain no longer suffered really struck a chord with me.
As an element of her grief, the film emphasizes Jackie’s role in cementing her husband’s legacy… as well as the somewhat overzealous aggrandizement of his legacy. In one scene, Jackie and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) discuss how little John was actually able to accomplish, given the brevity of his presidency. But Jackie remains devoted to making sure that her husband is remembered as a great man, a great president.
On a more superficial level, the film is very nice, visually. The costume design is spot-on, and I liked the incorporation of black and white footage in recreation of Jackie’s famed CBS News White House tour. There are some incredibly beautiful shots. The image of Natalie Portman as Jackie, with her face draped in a black veil for the funeral, sticks in my mind.
The structure of the film also kept me hooked, with the mix of interview scenes shared by Portman and Crudup, as well as flashbacks to earlier days, including the assassination itself and its immediate aftermath.
Jackie isn’t my favorite 2016 film, but I’d count it among the best. It isn’t a conventional biopic, nor a conventional historical drama, instead offering an intriguing, intimate look at a woman facing a very personal but also very public trauma. Recommended.