Jackie is a profoundly moving semi-impressionistic depiction of America’s most revered First Lady that deconstructs the icon while simultaneously tracking its development. Brilliantly directed and written, but the crowning glory is Natalie Portman’s soaring performance as the emotionally raw but ultimately controlled and controlling woman beneath the public facade.
This masterful semi-impressionistic portrait of Jackie Kennedy (played with authority by Natalie Portman in a performance that hits rarefied heights) is constructed around an interview she granted to Life Magazine a week after President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. It’s a brilliant dramatic strategy on the part of the filmmakers. Naturally, Jackie is raw and emotional, at times losing her icy grip on herself and affording insights into the fraught and terrified person beneath the carefully managed public façade, but her steely reserve and directorial control over the way she, her husband, and his presidency is presented to the public is also on fascinating display.
At one point during the interview she confides that she’s “lost track of what was real and what was performance.” This contrast between the real and the stage-managed, between the private and public, and the merging of the two, is the key to the film’s astonishing achievement in getting to the core of its elusive and enigmatic subject – of deconstructing the icon while simultaneously tracking its development.
The journalist (unnamed here, played by Billy Crudup) ranges far and wide in his questioning, opening the opportunity for expertly managed historical flashbacks and dramatic reconstructions, which often seamlessly project Portman into actual 60s footage. For example, we go into and behind the scenes of Jackie’s “Tour of the White House” TV special of 1961. As Portman’s Jackie moves around rooms she has re-fashioned in homage to Lincoln and other notable past presidents, her media-savvy aide (Greta Gerwig) coaches her out of shot by way of facial expression. Portman gets her character’s diligently feigned responses down perfectly. This is the icon we know so well: unflappably poised, fixed smile, trademark bouffant, Chanel suits…
The contrast with the traumatised, lost and enraged woman beneath struggling with the horror of the assassination and its aftermath makes for wrenching viewing. We are spared nothing, as the face of Portman’s distraught Jackie fills the screen in uncomfortably intimate extreme close-up.
The full horror of the assassination in Dallas so familiar through countless re-playings on TV strikes home as never before through a superbly executed dramatised re-enactment. The violent smack of the bullet, Jackie’s desperate attempt to climb over her husband to shield him from further attack, her holding his shattered head together in her lap, the blood and skull fragments spattering her face and clothes (which she refuses to clean up or change for the media cameras, insisting that the people of America deserve unsanitised coverage of the tragedy) – all this seems hyper-real.
Then there is her nightmarish wait at Houston airport while Lyndon Johnson is hurriedly sworn in, the autopsy, disagreements with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and high-ranking personnel over protocol and security arrangements at the funeral, breaking the news to the children of their father’s death, popping pills and drinking spirits to get herself through – the whole experience from Jackie’s perspective is driven home in all its hellish detail. This is not emotional manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. Rather, it is an attempt to zoom in on who Jackie was at this tragic and defining time of her life.
In my view, the filmmakers – and of course Portman – have pulled off something quite astonishing here, something that perhaps is only possible through an artistic treatment of the highest order: they have breathed life into a notoriously private woman previously reduced to media imagery and sound bites. Whether the character portrayed here is an accurate representation of the real person is irrelevant. It’s the closest we’re ever going to get, infinitely closer than any existing documentary footage could have brought us. That’s close enough, for the extremely moving effect is to restore the humanity of America’s most famous and revered First Lady, reduced by time and carefully moulded public perception to something simple and facile.
The film builds a fragmented picture of a Jackie far more complex than history remembers her that coheres around a single motivational belief: as First Lady she was driven by an unwavering conviction that John F. Kennedy was a great, if not the greatest, American president. Her perceptions of her responsibilities and duties as First Lady reflect this, both during her husband’s presidency and – especially – after his assassination. She sacrifices herself to the cause of honouring and promoting his legacy, with spectacular success. It may be difficult to fathom now, but at the time the Camelot myth she constructed was lapped up by the media, the American people and most of the world. And precisely according to plan, Kennedy emerged post mortem as a canonised figure, not only a great President, but something akin to a king. But the personal cost for the queen who created him is high. And not everyone bought the myth.
The journalist conducting the interview is sceptical about whether Kennedy’s record as President justifies the theatrical grandeur of his funeral, which of course conflicts with Jackie’s views. The understated thrust and parry of the exchange that results is riveting. However, Jackie knows she holds all the cards, and plays them when necessary. She expounds in detail on the assassination in the manner of a confidante, then bans the interviewer from including her divulgences in his write-up. Similarly, she chain-smokes throughout the interview, but at one point fixes her eyes on the journo and declares “I don’t smoke.” There is menace in her meaning. Her editorial control is absolute.
Jackie represented something much bigger than herself and her position as First Lady, and it comes across in the film that she knew it. The Camelot myth picked up on and projected a globally shared notion of America as a sort of democratic ideal, the leading light of free societies everywhere. Jackie’s Camelot was a fairy tale the public embraced, an elevated version of the American dream tailored to the highest office in the land. Her timing was perfect. And somehow she perfectly fused style and substance. The same might be said of this marvellously crafted emotional powerhouse of a film. See it.
For complete list of film reviews published on this site see Movie Review Archives