“What did we accomplish?” argues an aggrieved Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) in JACKIE. “We’re just the beautiful people, right?” When you stand at the Sixth Floor Museum in downtown Dallas in 2016, once the infamous School Book Depository and now both a memorial and a testament to the life of the 35th President of the United States, it’s hard to argue that the Kennedys didn’t impact America. Yet while Bobby’s anguish to Jackie (Natalie Portman) bemoans missed opportunities, Pablo Larraín’s film argues the enduring myth of the “shining Camelot” of the Kennedy administration is one that the former First Lady wilfully created.
Noah Oppenheim’s script picks up a week after that fateful November day, with Life magazine’s Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) summoned to interview Jackie at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. In no uncertain terms he is told that he will report her version of events, and what unfolds is both a tale of a grieving widow forced to make unusual decisions in unusual circumstances and a filtered glimpse into life behind closed doors.
Larrain and Oppenheim use Jackie Kennedy’s restoration and televised tour of the White House as one of the key touchstones of the film, and it’s almost a heavy-handed analogy for the entire film. On one hand, we get an intimate portrait of a woman who is determined to not let the legacy of her husband be anything other than her vision. Yet it is all staged for the cameras, and as she loses her husband, her home and her title in the space of a week, it is the staging of funeral to rival Abraham Lincoln’s that occupies her time. The dichotomy between this exhibitionist act and the woman who “never wanted fame, I just became a Kennedy” is where the central tension lies.
Which makes us wonder if there’s ever any real chance of getting close to the eponymous lead. Portman’s uncanny portrayal is the focus of the picture, one that skirts the line of impression but instead inhabits the character completely. We learn more about her in a few shell-shocked scenes, still wearing a dress covered in her husband’s blood, than we could from any other source. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine has some lush award-worthy costumes and set-design to play with, but plays the photography straight, allowing the narrative to jump through time and remained focused on the titular lead.
Which brings us back to the quote from Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy, as we must ponder whether the film accomplishes anything beyond examining beautiful people. It really is a showcase for Portman in the end, but also a timely reminder of how easy it is to manipulate the official version of the truth. As the world sails into uncharted waters of a president-elect with a penchant for a malleable approach to facts, it’s a lesson we could stand to remember on a daily basis.