Several times in “Jackie”, director Pablo Larraín re-creates famous images of the suddenly, tragically widowed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, played here by Natalie Portman, such as her stricken beside Lyndon Baines Johnson aboard Air Force One as he is sworn in as President of the United States in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination. Often when you such real life events re-staged for the silver screen, it is meant to be a backstage glimpse, to see the way it really was, to get past the public persona for the private persona instead. We want to know who these people really are! But “Jackie” has little interest in who “Jackie” really was, which is not a criticism but a mere statement of the film’s intent. Larraín, in a way, takes the conclusion of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, with the 16th President being carried away and into legend, as its doctrine. This is not a peeling back of the Camelot myth but a fantastical, arty rendering of that myth’s creation. “Jackie” makes poetically explicit, for the most part, that even if the First Lady did not carry the casket in that famed processional, she did some of the heaviest lifting.
This attempt to draw out the real Jackie Kennedy is literalized in Noah Oppenheimer’s screenplay by The Journalist (Billy Crudup) who has come to Hyannis Port in the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s death to interview the President’s widow. Larraín almost exclusively stages these scenes in straight on shots, like The Journalist is trying to prevent Jackie from merely looking past him, though that is figuratively what she does anyway, remaining captivatingly evasive as she sucks down cigarettes and finishes The Journalist’s sentences, always one step ahead. Indeed, Portman often plays these moments with a deliciously sly smile. It made me think, strange as it may sound, of that time when David Letterman was coyly trying to get Julia Roberts to open up about her divorce and Jules just played him perfect. The most famous are often most famous for a reason.
The scenes with The Journalist are given their own framing in the form of a real life television special where Jackie – or, Mrs. John F. Kennedy – gave a tour of the White House, which was the first glimpse the American public got of the massive restoration that Jackie had undertaken. This plays quite distinctly in the movie’s language as an offering of intimacy from Jackie, though it was as staged as anything, which the movie makes quite clear in the way the rigid, rehearsed tone of Jackie’s speech, and right down to the “spontaneous” appearance of her husband. In this latter moment, the CBS reporter speaks to President Kennedy, offering canned observations, while Jackie, the brains behind the walk and talk, stands off to the side, like she’s supposed to know her place. She does, even as “Jackie” allows her to re-claim it by demonstrating how she re-claimed her husband’s legacy before it was too far gone.
There are only the briefest political ruminations, usually put forth by Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, whose sad, sloping eyes makes up for his mostly non-existent Bostonian accent), who worries over his brother’s hardly existent legacy, of their inability to accomplish much at all outside of getting out of a crisis they got into. The causes of Kennedy’s less than impressive list of accomplishments, however, are not addressed. What’s done is done. And as she is forced to go about the agonizingly pragmatic task of moving out of what has become her home, she also finds herself with taking steps to ensure that her former home, and the city where it resided, and the country where it resided, do not allow her husband’s legacy to go untended.
This is never explicated any clearer than in the funeral procession, which Jackie demands to be as opulent as that of Lincoln’s, the whole world watching as she marches behind her husband’s casket down Pennsylvania Avenue. Several times Larraín positions his camera directly below Jackie, looking up at her and at her black veil blowing in the breeze, shots from which, despite the grim circumstances, no splendor is strained. Indeed, these are Movie Shots, in all that those capital letters are meant to impart, undisguised and unabashed. And if we also must acknowledge that is also a sequence which a comes fairly close to co-opting the reality of sorrow, it is nevertheless as true an evocation of transforming a public moment into purposeful spectacle as you will see, the latter causing you to consider the former, and vice-versa, and how they can so easily become intertwined.
“Jackie’s” weakest moments are when it tries for a little human shading, which only feel puffed up and put upon, if partially because the whole point of Portman’s performance seems to be holding us at a glassy remove, like she is the star for a twenty-tens re-make of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy. You see this most acutely in a few sequences where Jackie is briefly to left to her own devices in 1600 Pennsylvania, eating dinner, and then getting dressed in a black nightgown for bed while sipping at a glass of vodka, intended as some kind of behind closed doors divulgence. Yet Portman plays it like the camera is still there. Perhaps that’s sounds like a criticism, but I mean it as a compliment, maybe paradoxically, where the movie asks her to comment on how Jackie Kennedy feels and Portman channels the elegant aloofness of Jackie Kennedy instead. Even in its most intimate moment, Portman chooses to grant her subject privacy.