… there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.
Towards the end of Jackie, the title character ruminates on her deceased husband. As a boy, he loved history. He especially loved the tales of Camelot. It does not matter that Camelot never existed, a figment of the collective imagination conjured into being through generations of myth and legend. People wanted to believe in Camelot, and so they invested it with a texture that seemed to manifest itself. Camelot was a story, but it was a story that was in many ways more appealing than the truth.
Jackie is a story about mythmaking. Arch and playful, self-aware and self-critical, Jackie tightens its focus on Jackie Onassis Kennedy to the days immediately following the death of her beloved husband. Using the iconic Time magazine interview as a framing device, Jackie follows its protagonist as she sets about building a legacy and a legend around John F. Kennedy. The lines between history and mythology blur, Jackie cleverly contrasting the title character’s restoration of the White House with her construction of her husband’s legend.
There are points at which Jackie seems a little too manner and a little too stage-managed, a little too perfect and a little too rehearsed. There are points at which Natalie Portman slips from being Jackie Onassis Kennedy playing the widow to a beloved legend to being Natalie Portman playing Jackie Onassis Kennedy playing the widow to a beloved legend. This sort of sly recursion is very much in fitting with the tone of the film, but it does occasionally feel a little too cold and a little too distant.
There are moments when Jackie feels uncanny, when the film blends so perfectly with the historical record that it seems to have been snatched from between moments. Caspar Phillipson makes a perfect photographic replica of John F. Kennedy, an effect heightened by keeping him at the edge of frame and glimpsed like a legend making cameos. Jack Kennedy’s most extended dialogue is actually a soundbyte from the real figure, Phillipson lipsynching to it as though the thirty-fifth President of the United States might still be preserved in some manner.
Similarly, Pablo Larraín does a wonderful job integrating the film into the historical record. The entire film is shot in the classic 1.66:1 aspect ratio that allows Larraín to segue effortlessly from his original footage to newsreel material. The digital copy of the film has been treated to approximate the effect of film grain so that the film can bounce effortlessly between actual coverage of real events to the more intimate drama unfolding within Jackie Kennedy’s life. It is a remarkable effect.
More than that, Larraín’s directorial style is cleverly built around the imagery and iconography most associated with the widow of John F. Kennedy. When Jackie moves through the film, the camera tends to track and follow her in a way that emulates the material from A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, the televised documentary that in many ways introduced Jackie to the nation. While many of these sequences are moments of private grief, the use of that framing and composition underscores how performative it all is.
There is the occasional moment where Jackie leans a little bit too far into this idea of public spectacle and manufactured history. Natalie Portman is great in the title role, bringing a strength and humanity to a woman who refuses to lose control of her own narrative in the middle of the worst days of her life. However, the character of Jackie Onassis Kennedy looms so large over the picture that (like many biography performances) Portman seems to be playing more of an imitation than a character.
This is most obvious when it comes to delivering dialogue in the widow’s thick Boston accent with all those soft vowels and forced “r” sounds. When the reporter from Time arrives at the place she has chosen to make her home, he reminds her that they have met before. “I remembahr,” she observes. Later on, as she yells at Bobby Kennedy, her accent pushes even further. It is perhaps telling that Portman’s accent never actually slips. Instead, it occasionally overwhelms. It is in keeping with the themes of the film, but it is distracting.
Jackie seems to be playing with the audience here. Several extended scenes pair the actor and character with John Hurt playing an Irish American priest. Hurt does not offer the worst stage Irish accent in the history of film, but the delivery is heavily exaggerated. It feels almost as though the movie is teasing the viewer. Indeed, as perfect as Caspar Phillipson as a doppelgänger of John F. Kennedy, Peter Saarsgard is physically unconvincing as Bobby Kennedy. When the film brings them together at the climax, the difference is striking.
Similarly, Jackie consciously plays with its own history, hewing close enough to the facts of the interview that it is clear the production team have done their research (right down to Jackie critiquing her reporter’s handwriting and him phoning in the piece to the editors) while still fudging the details to offer a good story; the anonymous reporter played by Billy Crudup is presented as a grudging collaborator in Jackie’s mythmaking, while the real Theodore White was an enthusiastic supporter.
There is a sense that all of this is intentional. After all, Hurt and Saarsgard give great supporting performances, even if their presence stands in sharp contrast to the meticulous attention to historical detail paid elsewhere. The “close enough, but slightly off” elements are very much the point of the exercise. This is a story about the thin membrane that separates history from narrative, and the skills required to blur the line that exists between one and the other. Jackie at once feels like a lost showreel and a complete invention; it is very clever in its own way.
The script draws attention to the dissonance that exists as history is being rewritten. “I never smoke,” Jackie advises the reporter while puffing away on a cigarette. Fretting over the potential destruction of his brother’s legacy, Bobby Kennedy laments that the family got to accomplish relatively little during their two years in the Oval Office. “We were going to do great things,” he insists, demonstrating the gap that forms between potential and reality. However, Jackie seems to realise that this is where mythology lives.
Jackie is engagingly ambivalent on the mythbuilding undertaken by its central character, presenting as something of a renovation project equivalent to the work she undertook to transform the White House into “the People’s House.” It is telling that the most heavily featured member of the White House staff outside of Bobby Kennedy is the (unofficial) decorator Bill Walton. Walton never held an official position, but played a key role in assisting the Kennedy family. He helped decorate the White House and to plan the funeral, but sits outside the legend.
The script is always sympathetic to Jackie, to her perspective and her motivations. However, the film is also quite candid about the gulf between the story that Jackie is crafting and the reality of the Kennedy administration. Jackie never allows its protagonist to completely fool it. This is a film that understands the appeal of Camelot, that the ideal is so fundamental precisely because it could never exists. Like the film’s version of John F. Kennedy, it exists primarily in the negative space, in the possibility of what might have been more than what actually was.
Larraín’s direction is beautiful and evocative. The camera is following and pushing Jackie, making the audience complicit in this exercise. It tracks Jackie as she moves, and it creeps in on her when she stands still. The audience is always watching, and so the grieving widow can never break character. Larraín captures theme beautifully through his choices, particularly a stunning pan around Jackie in her funeral clothes. The camera angles low as her funeral veil laps in the wind, teasing the possibility that the audience might catch a glimpse of the real Jackie.
Jackie is at times a little too arch and a little too self-aware for its own good. While this is always a conscious choice, it pushes the audience out of the moment and out of the film. However, Jackie is still a beautiful piece of work. It is a thoughtful and measured exploration of myth-making anchored in a very strong central performance with some stunning directorial choices.