I was born during the Kennedy administration, so Jackie Kennedy (and later Onassis) was always one of the most famous women in the world while I was growing up, until her death in 1994. But she was also mysterious, rarely giving interviews. I remember the first time I heard her speak, in a clip from her ballyhooed television tour of the White House. It was shocking–she had a breathy, baby-doll voice, sounding all the world like an empty-headed debutante. But she was much more complicated.
Jackie is an interesting film, directed by a Chilean, Pablo Larrain, and starring Natalie Portman as the recently widowed First Lady. The framing of the film is an interview by Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup, but credited only as “the Journalist”) that Jackie gives him a week after the assassination. It was in this interview that she mentioned JFK’s habit of listening to the original cast recording of the Broadway musical Camelot, thus supplying America a metaphor for his presidency.
On the surface, what he have here is a movie about a woman planning a funeral. The events are from the landing in Dallas to the funeral itself, then the interview, with flashbacks to the tour of the White House. The players are all there: Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, along with actors representing LBJ’s assistant Jack Valenti (who would for years be the head of the MPAA), Lady Bird Johnson, and Greta Gerwig as the White House social secretary and Jackie’s school friend. Jackie is determined that he not be buried in Massachusetts, but at Arlington, and that there be a procession from the Capitol to the church.
While this is the skeleton of the film, Jackie is really about iconography and legacy. For someone my age, and perhaps those younger, there are many touchstones of our collective memories–the pink suit, bloodied, and the pillbox hat, the caisson carrying the casket, the riderless horse, the image of the Lincoln speeding away, JFK cradled in Jackie’s arms after she instinctively tried to grab a piece of his head from the trunk of the car. I was astonished that Larrain and screenwriter did not include John-John’s salute, which for many Americans was too much to bear.
Through her grief, Jackie is aware that she is molding a legacy. We see her in her private moments, and there is almost a feeling of uncomfortableness. She takes a shower, the blood washing off her skin. She smokes incessantly, though she tells Crudup pointedly that she does not smoke–she has full editorial control of the interview.
The film is short, and is mostly a collage of images, told out of order, a portrait of grief and legacy-building. Portman nails the voice, as well as being very convincing in her duality–the public face, and the private woman who is nobody’s fool.
Jackie isn’t quite the film I expected. It has an experimental feel to it. It’s very talky, with a long scene between Portman and a priest (John Hurt) on the nature of suffering. This film is not cheerful, and is much more thoughtful than entertaining, but for Baby Boomers it will have resonance.