There is definitely a case to be made that a film about a seminal moment in American history should be made by someone unattached to American history. Jackie’s producers, Darren Aronofsky and Scott Franklin (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) wanted their director to have as few preconceived notions about the Kennedys, the assassination and The First Lady as possible. This is one of the reasons they chose to work with Chilean director Pablo Larrain. The three envisaged a film predicated on political events without being overtly political, a biopic about Jackie Kennedy, unconfined to the experiences of The First Lady. The result is a movie that intimately explores the universal feelings resulting from bereavement and all its dissonances. It transcends the political to scrutinize the personal.
In case you don’t already know, the film is built around the interview that Jackie Kennedy gave to Time Magazine’s Theodore H. White in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination: ‘For President Kennedy: An Epilogue’. It is also based on her televised tour of the White House. The movie vacillates between the interview, the tour and Jackie’s own account of the assassination and ensuing events.
The movie opens with reporter Theodore H. White drawing up to the White House to meet the cold and reserved Jackie Kennedy. Although he will write the article, she will vet his every word; this will be her story, not his.
Jackie is an expert manipulator and defends her actions throughout: ‘people like to believe in fairy tales’. She sees it as her duty to construct a narrative in which her husband is the Camelot that America needs, and she is his solid, resilient First Lady. She resolves to give him an arguably undeservingly grand funeral to elevate the Kennedy legacy beyond merely that of ‘the beautiful people’.
Seemingly cold and standoffish, Jackie is in fact attempting to cultivate an image of herself that she deems as appropriate for a First Lady: confident and emotionally stable. Yet she is anything but: in one scene she loudly declares, ‘I love crowds’, and in the next we see her in a crowd whilst the camera practically flails around her, revealing her unease; she is floundering, and out of her depth. And there is a palpable contrast between Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the onscreen Jackie Kennedy, performing for the camera as she gives her tour of the White House and the Jackie behind the camera, anxious in her attempt to appear flawless: she has an obvious ‘performing voice’, accentuating her vowels in order to appeal more regal.
Similarly, Jackie’s feelings towards JFK are multi-layered as, obviously, his untimely death left so many things in their relationship unresolved. Throughout the film we are made aware that their relationship was in no way perfect; now that he is dead, this makes her feelings towards him even more confusing.
The cinematography, costume and set design perfectly encapsulate her shock, grief and sense of the uncanny. There is a scene in which she returns to the White House alone after her husband’s death, The house is immaculate, and she would have blended in perfectly with her pink Channel suit, were it not splattered with her husband’s blood- more like a scene from a horror movie than a historical biopic!
I actually found all of her costumes extremely memorable, which something I don’t generally pay a lot of attention to in a film. But I’m not sure if we can really credit the movie for this as obviously they were all based on the designs from the real Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe….
But I think it is important to talk about the music: it was composed by Mica Levi, who’s other credits include Under The Skin, a suitably creepy movie about a weird alien/monster type creature played by Scarlet Johansson who drives around in a truck in Glasgow to entice men back to her home before putting them in a trance and trapping them in some sort of liquid abyss…its really weird (but quite good!). So hopefully that gives you a sense of the tone of the music…!
It is not the conventional historic biopic music you might expect, but provides the movie with a feeling of other worldliness. It is almost beautiful and lush but it jars and you get that feeling of something cold spilling down into your stomach, that something is amiss and that something may have just gone terribly wrong…
Interestingly, Jackie isn’t aware of her pyrrhic victories: she tells the journalist that JFK’s funeral should have been bigger and grander, and he has to reassure her that it was spectacular from an outsider’s perspective. The film examines the problems and contradictions of being a story maker and how important this role actually is. (A theme that Hollywood is often accused of being obsessed with- arguably another reason as to why this film has been so highly regarded by the industry!)
I don’t know whether or not this is an accurate depiction of the real Jackie Kennedy’s reaction to the infamous events, but it is certainly an insightful character study and fantastic portrayal of The First Lady by Natalie Portman (Her voice is absolutely perfect-it would be very difficult to distinguish between Natalie Portman and the real Jackie!). It allows us a glimpse into the way in which people may react to loss, grief and shock, which I found fascinating and moving.