If you haven’t seen Jackie, it’d be easy to roll your eyes a little at the premise. A tasteful, beautiful historical figure portrayed tastefully by one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and tasteful actresses in a beautiful, tasteful biopic — all that high fashion and breathless dramatic glamourousness can easily edge into parody. And how much is there to learn, really, about a historical figure people have been obsessing over for 50 years? Moreover, what is it with our Jackie obsession, anyway? All these words we use to eulogize her: dignity, poise, elegance. Is any of that really about her personhood or is it simply a justification for all our perfume ad clichés? Was she just pretty enough to make us look and silent enough to make us wonder, or is there more?
Jackie, from Chilean director Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda) and writer Noah Oppenheim, does an incredible job taking a subject that could so easily be hoary and shallow and giving it heft. It may fall a little short exploring the why of the Jackie mythos, but it’s a brilliant portrait of Jackie’s role in creating it. It restores her agency even if it fails to challenge some of our assumptions. Perhaps most impressively, it’s a film with enough to say about Jackie Kennedy that it makes you believe that there really is still something to learn about her, even if mere mention of the phrase “style icon” makes you want to puke a little.
In the first place, “biopic,” a genre the title seems to suggest, is a bit of a misnomer, since this is more of a snapshot. It captures Jackie Kennedy at a crucial moment in time: the week following the JFK assassination. It uses as a framing device her first interview after the assassination, the one in which she herself actually created the myth of “Camelot.” Billy Crudup plays the writer (identified in the film only as “The Journalist,” though the situation is based on a real magazine profile, written for Life magazine by Theodore White). The narrow time frame keeps Jackie tightly focused, its portrait is concrete and lucid even as it moves dreamily in and out of flashback.
The film opens with Crudup arriving at the Kennedys’ Hyannis compound, where, meeting Jackie at the doorstep, his character patiently agrees to her demand for complete editorial control. “In case I don’t say exactly what I mean,” she explains.
“Somehow I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” he responds. Message!
It’s the first brush stroke of a portrait which will go on to depict Jackie Kennedy as the history-wise, relentlessly image conscious custodian of her husband’s legacy. Also, my God, that voice. From the her opening words through about five minutes of screen time, Natalie Portman’s breathy, over-polished but still unmistakably Mass accent (the Rs mostly become Ws, as if in trying to lose her regional dialect she’s given herself a speech impediment) is one of those fingernails-on-the-chalkboard, I’m-not-really-going-to-have-to-watch-a-whole-movie-of-this-am-I impressions, a la Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Snowden trailer. But eventually you get used to it, and if you actually watch the real Jackie Kennedy’s 1961 White House tour television special (referenced heavily in the film) you realize that she actually did talk like that. It’s this weirdly sexual but overtly chaste purr, like someone trying to combine a bad husky porn voice with a bad baby porn voice, marinated in finishing school and dunked in the Boston Hahbah.
Her delivery is truly bizarre (both the real Jackie’s and Natalie Portman as Jackie’s). But once the off-putting quality wears off, it becomes an aspect of this compelling character. How does a person get a voice like this? How does she become like this, this chimera of personified virgin-whore complex? Jackie doesn’t fully answer these questions, but the anecdote is perfectly chosen for other reasons.
For JFK’s funeral, she wants spectacle. Why? How does this famously private woman magically find herself under such an intense spotlight at an event largely of her own design? Partly, it seems, because she wasn’t really private, just meticulously stage managed (hence that voice). What the film does so elegantly is to connect that almost pathologically image conscious Jackie with a Jackie who not only cared about history, but was shrewd in creating it. It makes a compelling case that Jackie was worried about her image not (just) because she wanted to be such a perfect Stepford Wife that she could land a president, but because she was hyper aware that image is largely what becomes history.
She asks a few people in her circle if they know anything about James Garfield or William McKinley, two other assasinated U.S. presidents. Not so much. What about Abraham Lincoln? He freed the slaves, of course. His face is on the five dollar bill.
So Jackie Kennedy orders up some books on Lincoln’s funeral and goes about the preparations for a lavish, Lincoln-esque procession to make JFK’s loss as much a part of history as Lincoln’s. In this, the film also explores the cruel paradox of funeral planning, where death forces a thousand logistical decisions onto the survivors at the exact time when they can’t possibly be expected to make rational decisions. Now, imagine that, but magnified by the death being of a sitting president, with not only his family to please (Peter Sarsgaard plays RFK with his typical understated brilliance despite looking nothing like him), but the Secret Service, the new President, the American people, foreign dignitaries… basically the entire world. Oh, and did I mention she had also lost a two-day-old child two months earlier and Lee Harvey Oswald got shot the day before the funeral? Man. It’d be fair to say there was a lot on her plate.
Jackie lionizes its subject as ultimately capable of handling all these challenges, while giving her just enough flaws that she doesn’t become some kind of X-Woman whose mutation is poise. Jackie having grace was already a joke on Seinfeld, so to treat it as seriously as Jackie does without having it come off laughable is no small feat.
Above all, Jackie depicts its subject as a canny operator, a media conscious woman who could tell her hand-picked magazine writer “I don’t smoke” while sucking down a Salem. Her flaws extend as far as being openly hypocritical, tough to the point of defensiveness, and prone to woe-is-me fits of depression, such as when she claims to her priest (played goateeishly by John Hurt) that the “real” reason she wanted such a public funeral was that she secretly hoped someone would assassinate her.
What’s unclear to me is whether the movie knows how much of that explanation is self-serving bullshit. I don’t mean to say it was all self-serving bullshit. I can certainly buy the film’s premise that Jackie Kennedy was driven by a regard for history, which shows up clearly in the White House tour special when she’s talking about preserving artifacts and furniture with historical significance. But historical reverence plus altruistic regard for JFK’s legacy isn’t the whole story, is it? Not when we’re talking about an always impeccably dressed fashion plate who was just as much a style icon as her husband’s rumored mistress Marilyn Monroe, no. No one with those clothes and that voice and that hair and those pearls didn’t have a high degree of personal vanity (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Likewise, when the climax of the film is essentially Crudup’s character praising Jackie for her “dignity,” explaining that she was everything the country needed that day, it’d be nice if there was some sense that the movie knew that a lot of that sense of dignity was based on smoke and mirrors and makeup and framing (something that Jackie herself certainly knew). I mean, there’s a reason Larrain didn’t make a movie called “Mary Todd.” And that reason ain’t dignity. It’s that Mary Todd wasn’t a pretty young thing. If you gloss over that a little because you think it’s self-evident or obvious, fine. But if you ignore it because it’s uncomfortable, it feels like a deflection. It feels like the public denying culpability for our own shallowness, trying to justify it with fancy words like “poise.” Jackie is a brilliant portrayal of Jackie Kennedy as someone who knew how to play the game, but it could stand to be a little more skeptical of the game. We all could.