JACKIE shows the raw emotional wounds behind the myth of Camelot
Were you to do a random person-on-the-street survey and ask people what family is considered American royalty, without a doubt the Kennedy family would be the most popular answer (although, tragically, the Kardashians may be campaigning for a distant second). Whether or not you agree with the fantasy that America has a royal family, or whether or not the notorious Kennedys deserve that title, they have been the focus of nostalgic hearts for decades. From the time of John F. Kennedy’s election to his son’s death in 1999, a Kennedy story is always breaking news.
Even before she was made a widow, Jackie Kennedy’s style was widely admired and copied. Her public dignity throughout the nation’s mourning further made her a legend, and even after a brief fall from grace for marrying Aristotle Onassis, she remained a fascinating and yet distant public figure. Jackie’s lifelong obsession with maintaining her privacy is all the more remarkable considering that the fabled and famous Kennedy Camelot was entirely her invention.
Pablo Larraín’s (Neruda (2016)) Jackie is a film that seems to fight with itself from the beginning. It is both a film that shows us the grieving Jacqueline Kennedy (ugliness and all) and yet keeps blowing kisses at the Camelot legend. If the myth were actually fact, then this wouldn’t be remarkable, it would be accurate. Instead, we’re thrown back and forth between the two and are never given a reconciliation, so the end result is regretful and unsatisfying.
First, the good: Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun (2016), A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)) is jaw-dropping in her portrayal of the First Lady, from her mannerisms to her accent. The flashbacks to the televised White House tour allow Portman to not just portray Jackie, but to almost eerily reincarnate her. Her shell-shocked behavior as she wanders among the men who are unsure how to comfort her, but are unwilling to listen as she begs for someone to answer her questions, along with the wracking sobs as she scrubs her husband’s blood from her face, leave the viewer helpless in the face of such agony. Larraín’s unrelenting eye for detail (as Jackie removes her gore-soaked stockings, the dried blood glues them to her skin) allow Portman to truly go all in. A Best Actress win would be entirely deserved.
Had the rest of the film followed this raw and respectful lead, I would also say a Best Picture win would also be entirely fair. Unfortunately it slams the brakes on the narrative every time an exposition-style interview pops back up to narrate what we already know. A week after her husband’s murder, Jacqueline Kennedy gave a heavily-edited (and strongly-manipulated) interview to journalist Theodore H. White, and it’s this article where the story of Kennedy Camelot was first launched. Larraín uses this interview to block out the back-and-forth of the rest of the story, and it’s entirely unnecessary. In addition to stopping the momentum the film gains in between, it also tries to reinforce the Camelot fable to a 2016 audience that knows better. Trying to mesh the all too-accurate scenes of a grieving Jackie with the insistence that the fairy tale was real is a puzzling and disappointing decision. Jack’s rampant infidelity was barely alluded to, Jackie’s catty side is non-existent, and the ugly political climate was never mentioned (aside from the requisite comparison to Texas as “nut country”). With the narrow focus on a week’s worth of events, we don’t necessarily need all of those things demonstrated on screen, but their conspicuous absence speaks volumes.
Is Jackie worth a see? Yes, absolutely. Does it give us the real story? Yes and no, depending on which part you’re referring to. Jacqueline Kennedy was a stunning icon and John F. Kennedy was a good president, but in reality there was a lot of tarnish on the gold. Jackie painted a picture and a grieving nation seized upon it. It remains to be seen if Pablo Larraín’s picture will evoke the same response.