Portman & a film’s braided structure give an icon her human due.
God isn’t interested in stories. He’s interested in the truth.—a priest counseling Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie
Since narrative appears to be the human mind’s operating system, I’d quibble with the priest. Naked truth, shorn of narrative, becomes eye-glazing philosophy or an aphorism that’s useful mostly in response to a story. But he’s a wily old coot, played by the great John Hurt in his last role, and bears witness to Jacqueline Kennedy’s private devastation. Though I doubt God was in the bullet that killed Jack Kennedy, the priest partly redeems himself by also declaring, “God is love . . .”
Interested in stories, I watched Jackie twice. Nothing against the delightful La La Land, or Emma Stone’s refreshing performance, but I was disappointed that Natalie Portman didn’t receive best actress honors. This injustice seemed an aspect of the largely salutary balancing of awards the academy undertook. Such as honoring La La Land’s visionary director for his joyous blockbuster while declaring the wonderful artsy film Moonlight as best picture.
Sort of like calling Stephen King “best author” but naming an obscure, challenging small-press title “best book.” Usually the literary set finds a compromise between those poles. Maybe for me, in cinema, that sweet spot this year was the strangely overlooked Jackie. There were too many great movies, or otherwise unlucky timing, or movie-world politics I don’t understand. But Jackie was unrivaled for Portman’s inspired performance and for its complex layering of time frames.
Portman nails Jackie’s breathy finishing-school voice—you imagine it began as an instructed affectation, as an adaption to a wealthier milieu, or as an ambitious adoption that became her. She also conveys Jackie’s sincerity, her flashes of insecurity, her fidelity to duty, and ultimately her pain. After the horror in Dallas, she plans Jack’s funeral, even as she medicates herself with alcohol, comforts her two young children, and oversees the packing of her family’s possessions for their abrupt exodus from the White House.
The movie opens after all that, scant days after the funeral, with Jackie being interviewed. She wants to further her husband’s legacy by cementing his image as a noble leader, as an aristocrat who loved the people, as a demigod. This foreground frame (or recurring braid, if you choose) grounds the narrative. Otherwise a succession of flashbacks, not always linear, the segments reflect Jackie’s PTSD and the nation’s disorientation. The background elements include:
• A televised tour of the White House Jackie gave, about a year into the couple’s residency, that focuses on her historical restoration.
• A concert in the White House that showcases Jackie’s devotion to art and culture. Likewise at times, the inaugural ball.
• Dallas, including the couple’s arrival, the shooting, the fruitless race to a hospital, LBJ’s oath of office on the airplane.
• Jackie’s research into Lincoln’s funeral, which she used as the model for JFK’s.
• Her battles to achieve those trappings we remember, such as the rider-less dark horse, and her vulnerable walking “with Jack,” as she thought of it, while exposed to other possible shooters enacting an unknown plot.
• Her counseling by the priest, in which she reveals her grief, her love for her late husband, and the flaws in their marriage.
Like many a boomer, I carry memories of November 22, 1963, when Kennedy fell in Dallas and Jackie scrambled briefly onto the car’s trunk: to retrieve a piece of his skull, the movie affirms—not to flee, as it appeared to many at the time. Then, as we watched: Oswald’s killing and JFK’s funeral and John-John’s brave salute. But I’d never contemplated Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief, much less her PTSD. She was an odd, glamorous celebrity, a myth seemingly of her own creation. Not like us.
Thus Portman’s sobbing is heart-rending as she portrays Jackie, 34 years old, scrubbing from her beautiful, agonized face her mate’s clotted gore.
An edgy, fractured narrative deepens our understanding.
In the foreground interview, exactly one week after the assassination, Jackie is a grieving and traumatized woman; but, holding it together, she’s also steely, insightful, sardonic, calculating, and angry. Above all, she’s one pro dealing with another—a celebrity widow and the celebrity reporter she summoned. Both are vested in her glossy image, even as the journalist tries to negotiate for some human grit. Jackie won’t have it. “I don’t smoke,” she tells him as she chain-smokes through their meeting.
My beef with the film’s take here is the reporter’s insensitive, even disrespectful, attitude toward Jackie. Not only is this almost unimaginable in human terms, in real life the reporter, Theodore H. White, was the consummate beltway scribe. Friendly toward the Kennedys, he possessed, thanks to JFK and his own talents, a nascent literary franchise. White’s The Making of the President campaign series began with his account of JFK’s narrow victory over Nixon a few years before. This mega-bestseller also won him the Pulitzer prize. He was a respectful supporting player, the journalistic father of today’s fading print insider, Bob Woodward. And Jackie needed White, wanting to establish, as she did, the Camelot mythology for JFK’s short reign of under three years.
In real life, when White phoned-in his concise essay, of about 1,000 words, from the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port house, his editors resisted the Camelot metaphor, feeling it was overdone. White pushed back, at Jackie’s insistence. It remained. His interestingly structured essay is dated by that, the writer’s and Jackie’s sentimental collaboration, but it’s also of historical interest because of that excess. Years later, White wrote in his memoir In Search of History: A Personal Adventure that his editors were right; he was being kind to Jackie, but wished later he’d been less malleable.
I imagine that Jackie’s gifted Chilean director, Pablo Larrain, wanted his screenwriter—a journalist!—to seize the Hollywood cliché of the crass reporter because it provided a splash of vinegar. This gave Portman-as-Jackie something to play off; something to bring out her anger and a soupcon of bitterness at life in the fishbowl. Something to set apart the audience, in its growing sympathy for her, from the staring outside world. This braid has been criticized for, among other things, being unnecessary. But it does tremendous work in grounding the segmented narrative and in giving Jackie, and us, a slight distance from which to reflect.
The narrative doesn’t just move back and forth between the tragic day in Dallas, the arranging of the president’s funeral, her time spent accompanying her husband’s coffin to Arlington cemetery, and her earlier time in the White House – it often swirls, whirling the series of events together into a dizzying whole.
But what the fractured narrative does seems more considered and more precise than the Guardian’s summation. I’ve heard Jackie’s structure also called a mosaic, but I think there’s greater relationship among its elements than that term implies. The second time I watched Jackie, I saw how the Dallas flashbacks increase old-fashioned narrative suspense. Early in the movie, we see the first, survivable shot JFK took, to his neck. Certainly from that moment, the film makes an implicit promise to give its audience the next moment. The fatal one. But the filmmakers delay depicting the shot that removed the top of the president’s head. That wound left Jackie’s pink suit covered in blood for that whole day—in life, and for key scenes in the movie.
Finally the film delivers Jack’s death, and Jackie’s full experience of horror, in a way that deepens our compassion for her.
Jackie’s skilled, versatile scribe favors compression.
Jackie didn’t win a single Oscar, and wasn’t even nominated for original screenplay. The winner in that category went to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea. I’m a fan of Lonergan’s, for Margaret, and Manchester’s a beautiful film. But I found its script, an exploration of grief, a letdown, both manipulative and mundane in the buried secret that haunts its protagonist. Maybe that’s just how it hit me. And, after all, it was critically acclaimed and earned another Oscar for best actor.The Venice International Film Festival did honor Jackie for best screenplay. The script is by Noah Oppenheim, rather impressively also the president of NBC News. He’s the former producer of the network’s popular Today Show. A graduate of the Gregory School, a private prep school in Tucson, and Harvard College, he’s a veteran screenwriter as well as a journalist. His previous film credits include the screen adaptation of The Maze Runner; he’s coauthor of a bestselling book, The Intellectual Devotional: American History. Clearly he’s a genius. And persistent: in an essay for the Los Angeles Times, Oppenheim said Jackie was actually his first screenplay, but “in development” for three decades. (Though the actual writing went much faster than that—six years between his first and final drafts, with the last two or three done quickly for director Larraine.)
In the Los Angeles Times essay, he traces his Jacqueline Kennedy obsession to his mother:
My mother grew up in a small, two-bedroom apartment in Scranton, Penn. Not a lot of breathing room, let alone storage space for memorabilia. And yet, she saved one box — filled with yellowing newspapers and crumbling magazines, printed in fall 1963.
Over the years, visiting that apartment with my mom, I’d leaf through the fading images of the president’s veiled, heartbroken widow. I didn’t really understand why my mother had saved them. But I knew that this moment in history—and this woman—mattered deeply to her. . . .
I couldn’t shake the feeling that, like so many women in history, her story had never really been told. Sure, she’s been portrayed on the page, on television, even in film. But always as a mannequin, a fashion icon, a beleaguered spouse suffering the indignities of her husband’s infidelities. Never as a fully realized human being. Further, my time covering politicians had taught me one thing—there is almost always a gaping chasm between a person’s public persona and who they really are.
In an interview with Variety, he said the priest braid was actually a bit of dramatic license, derived from letters that Jackie exchanged with priests during the months and year following the assassination. Not a fan of slogging, cradle-to-grave biopics, he chose to focus on the week between JFK’s death and burial, he said in a YouTube interview, believing he could show Jackie’s many sides better through that cathartic prism.
Early on, the movie’s rhythms are slow, with some braids long, almost stately; about two-thirds through the narrative, the climax of JFK’s death is heralded by a staccato delivery of the story’s elements. These late, rapid cuts go like this:
• White House tour redux
The film’s juxtapositions reflect an unreal situation’s component parts, shards of Jackie’s shattered and shattering experience. But we must care about her to feel her tragedy. The Jackie who emerges in Jackie is a woman preoccupied by and keenly responsive to history and to beauty. These two qualities, at the film’s core depiction of her, we sense as true. Her interest in history surely flows at least partly from her historic position; her concern with beautiful furnishings, clothing, and artistic expression helpfully unites her official role, and her allied sense of occasion, with her own aesthetic taste and desire.
Jacqueline Kennedy was an opaque figure Americans saw but never knew. God may not be interested in stories, as the priest claimed, but Jackie sure as hell was; she fed her intelligence by serious reading, and in her last act became a trade book editor. Jackie gives her something precious, her human due: just another person, albeit exceptional, a private someone who merits compassion. How fitting that she’s at last delivered unto us through the alchemy and empathy of narrative art.[My friend Dave Owen wrote a wonderful essay, “Jackie Consults a Priest,” his take on that element of the film, for his blog Owen at Random.]