Calling the 2016 film Jackie a biopic would be inaccurate, in a sense. It does focus around one woman: Jackie Kennedy, and Natalie Portman’s performance ensures that she always remains the central figure on screen. But, rather than focusing on her life as a whole, the film concentrates on the days surrounding her husband John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the actions of Jackie within them.
Portman did extensive research for the role, and it shows. The film shows Kennedy’s famous 1961 ‘Tour of the White House’ throughout, and recreates it almost frame by frame. The use of black and white for the section, coupled with Portman’s flawless portrayal of Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, almost tricks the viewer into thinking they are watching the original footage.
The incredible portrayal of Kennedy – Portman becomes the eponymous figure rather than simply acting as her – and the way the film shows two sides of its titular character so effectively: the soft and friendly President’s wife in public, the sharp and witty grieving widow in private in the days after the assassination – “I don’t smoke,” she comments as she lights yet another cigarette – is at odds with the way it portrays the man thrust into the Presidency by the events of November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson. He is a less than sympathetic figure in the film, affronted when Robert Kennedy shouts at the men and women in the room who have just witnessed Kennedy’s suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being murdered on national television, “Excuse me?” he says accusingly, after Bobby tells him to sit down.
It is through Bobby Kennedy that Johnson is portrayed as ruthless and unsympathetic when it comes to the Kennedy’s plight. He is almost referred to as a villain of the day – Bobby refers to him not being able to wait to be inaugurated, insisting on doing the ceremony in Dallas – rather than a former Vice President thrown into power by a violent act. This is surprising, as Jackie Kennedy commented on the kindness of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson in the days after the death of John, and historians have reported that, motivated by the chance of doing something kind for Kennedy, Johnson offered her an ambassadorship to France, knowing her fondness for the culture and atmosphere of the country. Kennedy declined, and would decline further offers of ambassadorships to both Mexico and Great Britain. It is in its portrayal of Johnson that the film perhaps goes too far in its portrayal of grief. Portman’s performance ensures the devastation of the situation is not lost on the viewer, the awkwardness around the new President Johnson and his wife is unnecessary.
The film is centred on Jackie Kennedy’s interview with Life Magazine’s reporter Theodore H. White, conducted at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a week after the assassination. It is the frame of the film from which time flits back and forth. White was known to the Kennedy’s already, he had attended school with John’s brother Joseph. The interview with White is the interview in which she famously describes Kennedy’s administration and time in the White House as ‘Camelot.’ “There will be great Presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.”
When White dictated his one thousand word essay to his editors at Life the evening after the interview, they stated then that the ‘Camelot’ theme had been overdone. But, when he revised the piece, Kennedy objected to the changes. He wrote afterwards that his indulgence of Jackie had been a kindness to a newly-widowed former wife of the President, that his essay was a “misreading of history. The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed.” Historians have also disagreed with the description, Robert Dallek commenting that Kennedy was attempting to “lionise” her husband.
Camelot itself is of course a mythical place. The court of the fictional King Arthur, its location, even the location it is based upon, forever a mystery to scholars. ‘A castle by a river’ is a common description, but the beauty of it is that it can be anywhere. This is why it is such an effective description, it is hard to pin down what it means to be described as Camelot. It evokes visions of myth and magic. In the aftermath of a Presidential assassination, when a country is reeling and uncertain, harking back to the era of relative stability, when a President had not yet been shot as his motorcade drove through a plaza as a wonderful, magical place, would not have seemed so extraordinary.
In the interview Kennedy describes how much history John read as a child. “You must think of him as this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history, reading the Knights of the Round Table, reading Marlborough. For Jack, history was full of heroes.” This knowledge of history, this history of heroes, was transferred on to Jackie. In the film her character comments “I have read a lot of history. More than people think.” It is perhaps why the film uses the 1961 Tour of the White House so extensively. It shows just how interested in the history of the building Jackie Kennedy was, and into history as a whole.
She is aware of how former Presidents are remembered, or not. In another scene in the film, as her and Bobby Kennedy are riding with John’s casket to the autopsy, she asks the driver if he has heard of James Garfield, or William McKinley. He is not. They were both of course Presidents killed in office, and yet the driver does not remember them. The interview with White is a way to ensure Kennedy’s administration is remembered, and remembered positively. Bobby Kennedy’s character comments near the end of Jackie that “History is harsh.” But Jackie Kennedy overcame this harshness by plunging her husband and his memory into mythology, into a time when handsome men and beautiful women danced together and all was glorious.
White’s character, credited simply as ‘The Journalist’, comments that Kennedy’s funeral was a ‘spectacle.’ But wasn’t that the point? Jackie Kennedy was adding to the pageantry of the Kennedy myth. The film, by focusing mainly on this weeklong period, not only studies grief, but rather than being a traditional biopic – something that director Pablo Larrain is not known for – also studies Jackie Kennedy’s attempt to preserve her husband’s legacy in history, to ensure it is not ‘harsh’ but rather magical. At this, it is a masterpiece