This review, chosen in a spur of the moment decision, comes out at a rather significant time, with the final John F. Kennedy files due to be released into the public domain this week. Pablo Larrain’s Jackie portrays the pivotal moment of the 1963 assassination with unflinching, vivid accuracy but its real strength comes from its careful portrayal of the powerful, traumatised woman who was by the president’s side – Jackie Kennedy.
Jackie takes a languorous approach to a traditional biopic, throwing us into three narrative threads, all concerning different points of Jackie Kennedy’s life. Embodied by Natalie Portman, in one strand she’s making the landmark broadcast showing the history of the White House, and in another she’s still wearing the blood-stained pink suit as she flies her husband’s body back to Washington DC. A narrative set a week later shows the first lady giving her first interview after the assassination, an encounter lightly based on her famous Life profile.
The film explores the idea of crafting the right legacy. Jackie has spent her time as First Lady resurrecting the stories and artefacts of the presidents before her husband, and she understands how the public’s perception can be coloured over time. She knows what it takes to be remembered, and how someone is forgotten. When the assassination takes place, her initial shock turns into rage, before it becomes a steely will to ensure that her husband’s legacy will be one of the most beloved of all time.
We witness her steps through the interview, as she refuses to be a candid subject and finally rewrites the notes of the journalist to fit her own narrative. Manipulation of the media through those in power wasn’t anything new at the time (as Hollywood gossip magazines of the time could attest to) but it’s a mark of her own determination and resolve, even in what must have been a horrendously difficult time. It’s also an incredibly wily move, and despite her timid demeanour and soft voice, this biopic isn’t there to show her as the passive victim of cruel circumstance.
In the end, and in an ingenious use of vivid imagery, she wrote the lives of the Kennedys as the court of Camelot, using that one simple description to turn a political leader into an eternal legend. It’s the type of image control that those in publicity can only dream of, but Jackie does it to preserve her family and to ensure that her husband won’t become a forgotten leader, despite having just two years in office. These days, the effects of her moment of storytelling live on, with the Kennedys still occupying something like a royalty-like status in the USA, albeit largely in the high society and political circles.
Jackie is a stunning, thoughtful biopic that carefully weaves a complex portrayal of its central subject. Although much intrigue continued as Jackie Kennedy got older and moved on with her life, this film reminds us of her earlier roots, where her outwardly quiet demeanour hid a strong will to ensure her family remained a pivotal part of history. It’s a beautiful character study, and a fascinating look at the power of words and storytelling.