Pablo Nerrain’s Jackie is something most unexpected- a biopic that thrills, transplanting you into the immediate aftermath of an event known the world over through images, video footage and history books. Jacqueline Kennedy remains mythologized as a fashion icon and the picture of dignity and grace, an early celebrity First Lady whom we nonetheless don’t really know in any intimate sense- we only have the picture and image of her as a beautiful, young, sophisticated wife of a glamorous president who for a couple of years was raising toddlers in the White House while working as just as glamorous a hostess to transform it into a hotspot for spectacular parties and gatherings of artists. But what she went through in the aftermath of a deeply traumatic event, how she swiftly moved to prop up her husband’s legacy before it could be swept away, it’s all brought vividly to life in this new film, as is the era and the pageantry of the presidency in the relatively new media age of the early 1960’s.
Larrain is a Chilean director who nonetheless has a handle on the ways the presidency, the first family, and the White House are seen by both the American and international public. The Kennedys were the “beautiful people,” as Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) notes in the film, the young, fashionable first family who made the position seem hip and attractive after the stuffy Eisenhower years. Jackie Kennedy was an integral part of the myth making, as she invited the public into the White House by hosting a televised tour in 1962, to let everyone in on her plans for redecorating and modernizing a place that she referred to as the “people’s house.” Natalie Portman embodies the former first lady with a detailed, specific impersonation and a depth of the feelings that rage through her in the days immediately following her husband’s death in her arms from an assassin’s bullet. She goes for the peculiar, unique and inimitable cadence Jackie spoke in, but once you get used to that it hardly matters as Portman brings us in entirely through each wave of grief as emotions and actions carry through her.
We feel as if we are in the moment with her and others in the inner circle- from the piercing of the bullet to the back of the plane as LBJ takes the oath of office, to the White House once more as Jackie must pack her things, plan the funeral and grapple with securing a media spectacle to enshrine her husband’s legacy when a promising presidency is cut short after less than three years in office. Her savvy and know how in manipulating her family’s image is exposed, when we see how the Johnson administration wanted her out of the White House in rapid fashion, how Bobby Kennedy’s frustration with the waste of his brother’s life is brought into focus, and how she dealt with not just the pain of losing a husband and becoming a young widow, but also an ex-first lady in a matter of days. Jackie’s thoughts are verbalized in the form of the controlled and famous interview with a reporter from Life magazine (Billy Crudup) from the Kennedy residence in Massachusetts a week after the funeral.
It’s through Portman’s impressive resolve, Micah Levi’s unconventional and impactful score, and Larrain’s close, circular and intimate filming style that we are mesmerized by the intensity of those few days and Jackie’s tenacity, vulnerability and determination to insure her and her husband’s place in history. We are also mesmerized by the romanticizing of our presidents and the way certain of them come to be remembered, as Jackie’s relevance is in reminding us that it’s often through the media age and environment, where the “truth” is seen only in what people choose to believe through select reading of the facts, most of which can never be known, as every person has their own version to relay. This movie is Jackie’s version, which was attractive enough to take on a life of its own in the public’s preservation of the memory and popular imagination of the Kennedys- whether the man himself or his family deserved it is for another time. And perhaps another movie.
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