‘Jackie’: A Risk Taking Close-Up of Tragedy

Rating: 3.5/4

Jackie, starring Natalie Portman (Jacqueline Kennedy), and directed by Pablo Larrain, is the stuff that myths are made of. The re-telling of Camelot (not this Camelot).

When we find Portman’s Jackie, she is reconciling with the loss of her husband, John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). She is also in the process of planning the most historical myth building in modern history (this is before #fakenews).

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When John F. Kennedy took office, he took it under the rays of optimism. He had a young family, John Jr. and Caroline. He had a young wife, Jackie. Charm. Wealth. Youth. Gravitas. And hope. All of that would be washed aside in Dallas by one bullet. Much like today, hope from a young candidate gave way to baser natures, #thanksobama. And mythology of a new Camelot. A land ruled by just laws and men. Of the youngest and the brightest, appeared to fall into storybook lore.

Jackie opens with the former first lady “welcoming” a reporter, Billy Crudup a week following the murder of her husband. In this moment, we are seeing history literally being written. Jacqueline is often aware, even paranoid that some see her as a debutante (an airhead). Never mind that she received a BA from Vassar and took MA classes at Georgetown. She was an editor at Vogue and photographer for the Washington Times-Herald. She is highly conscious of narrative, the power of the press, and the power to write history at will. Crudup is that opportunity. 

The ability to write history is presented through the examination of her tour of the White House, a program broadcasted in 1962, often with Portman imposed into the original footage of the documentary. It’s also demonstrated in the planning of her husband’s funeral. From the moment we see her with the casket, she is already planning the burial. She wants to know what Lincoln did as opposed to William McKinley and Rutherford B. Hayes, two Presidents who were assassinated, yet little remembered. The funeral of Kennedy becomes the revitalization of the myth of Camelot. Jackie wants the pomp of a horse drawn carriage. She wants the image of her children immortalized as they gaze upon the passing carriage of their father’s body. She needs to see the dignitaries, heads of state, and everyone who despised her husband, walk down eights blocks of Pennsylvania avenue, even if there is a heightened chance of a sniper’s bullet striking again. Why does she take these chances?

She would have us believe, that it’s due to her vain glory, the same as her opponents think of her. Jackie is aware that her husband was not a perfect man, but she knows her husband did not deserve to die. When Lady Bird Johnson begs her take off her blood soaked pink dress for the cameras, she refuses to, because the cameras are there. She wants them to know, “What they did to Jack.”

Throughout Jackie, the conflict comes down to how one determines legacy. At one point, Bobby Kennedy, Peter Sarsgaard, laments what could have been: civil rights, the Vietnam War, poverty, education. All could have been solved, and now Lyndon Baines Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) will take credit, #thanksobama. Toward the end of the film,  Jackie is asked to visit with a priest (John Hurt), for fear that she is falling apart psychologically. These, and the moments with Crudup, are where the film does much of the workload of  Jackie’s feelings. Despair. Hurt. Anger. The purpose of his killing, and what her purpose has become since his death.

Wrapped-up in history and lost legacies is the representation given by Larrain. The streaking piercing strings for every cold flashback, the shot, the hospital, the autopsy room. They’re crushing reminders of the surrealism of the moment. Nevertheless, Larrain is not content to solely use crashing strings, he employs an almost absurd and uneasy use of extreme close-ups. Typically, a film may feature only 5-10% of extreme close-up. They’re usually reserved for emotional scenes for the highest dramatic effect. In Jackie, they’re 70-80% of the shots. The audience is left unnerved, and in the same position as Jackie with every extreme close-up and fourth wall breakdown. Larrain doesn’t shy away from the fear that he may be pushing his audience too far or overdoing the dramatic effect. He knows his subject matter. What’s more dramatic than the deluge of an assassinated president? Too far? He wants to push the audience to the emotional and psychological space Jackie was in. The effect is draining, and is the tenor of the film.

As one watches Jackie, it is almost impossible to fathom, in an age of Twitter, her being capable of managing the noise around her husband’s story. His legacy ? That’s usually left for the thin aged hands of history. Jackie places thin female fingers around the pen. No scene is this felt more, than her interactions with Crudup. For every “tantalizing” detail, like the sound as the bullet hit the skull, she redacts it, leaving him without one more “juicy” story, And, as the film begins to draw to an end, it is Jackie who is at the table, with the reporter’s notepad, writing the story. Writing the story of Camelot. With the lyrics: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known/As Camelot” refraining over and over again in her head. Her writing a story that will live as long as….

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