Jackie, the biographical drama of the life of Jackie Kennedy, does not disappoint. What could risk going too far towards pastiche feels instead like an intimate portrait of a complicated woman. Natalie Portman is truly mesmerising. And it’s a mesmerising Jackie Kennedy she plays.
So unusual is it to see female calculation offered up in film with no judgment that it felt almost jarring for Portman’s First Lady to be so unashamedly manipulative. Needless to say it took a while for me to warm to her. The difference between the breathless, show-puppet taking the cameras around the White House and the shrewd, determined Jackie in the immediate days after the shooting is wonderfully captured by Portman. She manages not to make the public Jackie seem fake, but rather just another facet of a conflicted woman.
Anyone familiar with the 1960s America would expect the beautiful clothes and the Chanel suit to be a mainstay of the film, as they have been a mainstay of what Jackie Kennedy is remembered for. And this is truly a beautiful film. But, while the clothes are there, as well as the iconic hairdo, they are very much a background to the acting. The pared-back soundtrack likewise makes it feel more raw, in contrast to the cultivated narrative of its heroine.
This film is not a further propagation of the Kennedy myth. It works harder than that. At one point the journalist interviewing Jackie Kennedy uses the word “spectacle” to describe the pageantry surrounding JFK’s death, a lot of it orchestrated by the First Lady. This makes it feel almost sordid and vainglorious on some level but this is perhaps a correct assessment of what was going on: an extension of the “Camelot myth”.
Against this backdrop, there is an uncomfortable awareness of the Kennedy “spin”, which forged a historic event deep in the American psyche. JFK’s legacy, the hope he inspired and his untimely death, was the result of a narrative carefully crafted by his widow. (In the incredibly short time he had in office, he had little chance to achieve much else.) It is a credit to Jackie’s skill that he has been immortalised as one of America’s great presidents nonetheless. But it has a cost, and the film does not shy away from the deep sadness, which is all the more poignant for that.
What really gives the film its power is its ordering of events. We see flashbacks to happier times, the Kennedys holding court, but the majority of the film is spent in the 7 days after the shooting. Towards the end, however, there is a moment of such shocking and graphic violence that the audience is truly jolted out of any easy ruminations on the myth and beauty of “Camelot” and is suddenly forcibly shown a brutal murder. By deliberately waiting so long to show this, and to show it in such detail, the audience is compelled to confront the uncomfortable fact that this rather beautiful American legend has at its heart the murder of a husband and father.
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This is a film full of poignancy, and is topical in the extreme. In one scene after JFK’s assassination, Jackie is packed into a car with her two children, with no fuss or attention, as the new First Lady discusses fabric swatches with the White House decorator. The White House and the world grind on. Perhaps that provides some comfort now in the thought that Donald and Melania Trump are just “passing through”, but it nonetheless feels unbearably sad.
Jackie Kennedy understood the nature of legacy and reputation. Long after the “spectacle” has ended, we are left with a clever portrayal of a woman who could see further than most. Bobbie and Jack Kennedy have an awful lot to thank her for. At its heart, this is a film about a woman who, in her own way, shaped the future of American politics.