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Jackie, JFK and the making of American myths

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Tim Kroenert |  17 January 2017

 

Jackie (MA). Director: Pablo Larraín. Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, John Hurt. 100 minutes

Jackie is about as far from your typical Hollywood biopic as you can get. Especially one concerning one of the most admired figures of the 20th century, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and centred on one of the most significant events in American political history, the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy. This is no maudlin, blow-by-blow account of a woman's life; nor does it bother greatly with the political intrigue that reasonably typifies other treatments of these events. Noah Oppenheim's screenplay concerns the business of myth-making, and combined with Chilean filmmaker Larraín's artful direction constitutes the making of a new myth, of which Jackie is the central figure.

As such there are layers of artifice to this intriguing telling of the assassination and its aftermath. The timeline is thoroughly disjointed, circling the assassination but not displaying it onscreen until quite late in the film, at which point it is recreated with brutal suddenness, as it occurred in life.

The primary frame for this retelling is Jackie's interview with Life magazine journalist Theodore H. White (Crudup), in which she famously compared her husband's brief, brilliant reign to Camelot — an analogy to Arthurian legend that stuck. Her conversations with a priest (Hurt) constitute a secondary framing device. These are two distinctive modes of confession in which the recent widow attempts to process and make sense of the her husband's death, and the lately former First Lady helps shape how the 35th President's legacy will be remembered.

Natalie Portman in JackieThe perspective is Jackie's at all times; JFK himself rarely appears onscreen, and often is just a shoulder or a jaw glimpsed in profile at his wife's side. There is a recurring motif in which cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine's camera picks Portman's Jackie out of a wider scene, zooming slowly towards her face, which is an open book, endlessly expressive even in total stillness. 

 

"Contemporary audiences are left free to accept or reject this vision, but never to doubt the complexity and fortitude of the woman who promoted it."

 

Portman's is a fine portrayal, with emotional depth extending far beyond mere mimicry. The artifices — the heavily stylised cinematography, Mica Levi's deliberately overbearing, Hitchcockian score — never let you forget that you are watching a film, but Portman's performance grounds the character in a profound sense of humanity.

Her carefully studied performance captures the aspects of Jackie's various personal and public personae with great skill, and at all times an abiding grace and dignity, whether she is washing her husband's blood off her face, or facing down the questions of an astute journalist who may or may not be on her side.

In the making of the Camelot myth, Jackie models the presidential funeral on Abraham Lincoln's, by this very process rejecting her brother-in-law Robert's (Sarsgaard) doubts that the Kennedy presidency ultimately amounted to much at all. In fact in this telling the myth-making had started even earlier, with Jackie the First Lady's oversight of the restoration of the White House, the historic furnishings offering a tangible link between her husband and America's greatest presidents, Lincoln included. Adopting the mode of a proud and elegant housewife, she displays these domestic achievements to the cameras of a television news service (recreated here in fuzzy black and white — another level of artifice), thus inviting the American people to share her vision.

Contemporary audiences are left free to accept or reject this vision, but never to doubt the complexity and fortitude of the woman who promoted it.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.

 



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Submitted comments

Glad to have viewed it with others with whom i coul immediately share responses. A stark event; never maudlin. Hurt as the priest presented the profession/vocation in a valued way reminding me of the heart of our calling.

john Cranmer 18 January 2017

Yes, it certainly did give the audience good insight into the complexity& fortitude of Jackie. It lacked understanding of her ancestory and her childhood formation though. Re myths : it promoted the other myth of American history - that the forces that do away with / assassinate an American President , just have to be accepted. Big money 'speaks louder ' in America . Louder than all the other so called myths.

Patricia Foley 19 January 2017

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