“Don’t let it be forgot”, Alan Lerner’s lyrics tell us, “that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Theodore White’s interview with Jackie Kennedy, published in Life magazine, forever associated that line with the Kennedy years — the brief, shining moment before it all came to a crashing halt.
Pablo Larraín’s film, Jackie, positions itself as a story about the first lady, and provides an Oscar-chasing title role for Natalie Portman. But it’s less about Jackie, and more about the single most extensively rehashed trauma the Baby Boom generation can’t seem to leave alone, this time in a supercut of her perspective. Centered on the White interview in Hyannis Port — though Billy Crudup is credited only as “The Journalist” — Noah Oppenheim’s script flashes back over the tumultuous days between the assassination and Kennedy’s funeral in Arlington National Cemetery.
Larraín shows fastidious attention to detail, or at least the appearance of it. He and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine seem to display some technical chops in managing to shoot on grainy period stock and still manage to take their footage of D.C. back fifty years. The script is packed with details like the Spanish speech Jackie practiced on Air Force One before the fateful motorcade, and we return again and again to segments of a near-reenactment of her famous White House tour to CBS. Brush a few things under the rug — like the fact that White used a tape-recorder rather than a notepad — and every frame screams how careful and detailed this depiction is.
The performances generally follow suit: an exacting eye for appearances, but with some notable blind spots. The makeup transforming Peter Sarsgaard into Bobby Kennedy is superb, at least from the chin down. Minor figures like William Walton (Richard E. Grant) and Jack Valenti (Max Casella) are spot-on, but President and Mrs. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) bear little resemblance. And when it comes to Jackie and her confidante, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), the pair are impeccably costumed and wigged, but each actress is clearly recognizable. For Nancy, it’s as maybe, but Portman bears little resemblance to the first lady, and while she manages the finishing school, mid-Atlantic accent, her breathy delivery feels more closely inspired by Marilyn Monroe than Jackie Kennedy.
But can mere accuracy offer anything new to yet another account of one of the most fetishistically documented episodes in American history? Larraín seems to want it both ways. He puts in so much care and attention that the gaps are that much more obvious, and make it seem more like a modern cast play-acting at the last days of Camelot. The focus on details keeps the narrative from ever really taking off and capturing something like a Herzogian “ecstatic truth”.
Of course, there’s also an exception to the exception, and that’s in Fontaine’s camera. From the judicious hand-held work to the intrusive face-on close-ups to the slow glides across immaculate tableaux, the camera does almost all of the heavy lifting in generating emotional weight that isn’t simply left to nostalgia. Every scene that makes the film worthwhile comes from the framing more than anything else.
So what of the choice to focus on Jackie Kennedy? I’m actually not that sure it does. Much has been made of the way Jackie shows her as the only woman in rooms full of men, fighting to keep them from pushing her around. It certainly echoes her lines that the White House, for all the work she did in restoring it, was never really hers, nor is the Hyannis Port compound, nor anything else. And yet, what does the film itself do but define the woman at it’s center in terms of the worst days of her entire life, illuminated only by the afterimages of her charismatic husband?
Where is the story of young Jacqueline Bouvier growing up and meeting her future husband? In her mourning, she muses to Fr. Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she should have become a shop-girl and married an ordinary man; where is the young woman who had those choices? And what of the three decades of her life after the White House? Jackie herself gets lost in Jack, here as ever.
What we’re left with is the anguish and the canned theodicy that Jackie is nowhere near up to the task of answering. How can a script even begin to grapple with a woman questioning what she has done to deserve this tragedy, when it has no time for what she has done or who she is outside of this darkest moment? What we’re left with is a woman who has seen as her primary occupation the burnishing of her husband’s legacy given a week to cram in years of that work.
We see, in Jackie, the primary architect of Jack Kennedy’s myth. And, ironically enough, in Jackie we may see its destruction. As enthralling as the idea might be to a child’s imagination, there never was an Arthur outside of the Matter of Britain. And, after seeing some of the machinery that went into it, I regret to say there may not have actually been a Camelot. Whether or not Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy bore so much of the responsibility in fact, Oppenheim and Larraín put it into her hands, and in doing so, break it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.