[Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, giving a White House tour.]

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.

[Aboard Air Force One, after the shooting, returning to Washington, D.C.]

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 Guardian, which named Jackie number five among the top 50 U.S. films of 2016, wrote in its review:

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.

[Noah Oppenheim: reporter, author, screenwriter.]

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:

• interview

• funeral

• priest

• funeral

• priest

• SHOOTING

• priest

• funeral

• priest

• funeral

• SHOOTING

• funeral

• SHOOTING

• funeral

• interview

• 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.

[She wore her bloody suit all day, wanting “them to see what they’ve done,” assuming that hateful right-wing reactionaries killed her husband.]

[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.]

25 Comments

  • Hi, Richard. Though I haven’t seen this movie, I can attest to how deeply the 60’s (when I was in grade school) were inundated with the “Jackie” persona and something of a mythical quality of a kind of American royalty, I guess you could call it. So much so that when I lost my father to brain cancer in the late sixties, people we knew compared my mother, another beautiful brunette, in her grief, to Jacqueline Kennedy, I being near the same age as Caroline and my little brother being near the same age as John-John. And we weren’t the only family for whom this comparison was made: it was a common theme among women of the time to be like Jackie, though many felt that she had betrayed something essentially American when she married Aristotle Onassis. Anyway, thanks very much for your complex and touching analysis and post, on this, International Women’s Day!

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Victoria. I urge you to read Monica Wood’s gorgeous memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, about her early loss of her father—reviewed here:

      http://richardgilbert.me/loving-kindness-review-monica-woods-warm-memoir-limns-love-loss-in-a-maine-village/

      And I know what you mean about the Onassis thing. I held it against her when I was young, not vehemently or anything, but I judged her harshly, as I recall. The movie caused me to remember and reevaluate that, too. Her money worries after JFK’s death were keen, and I realized, too, who but a titan of industry or another megastar would have the confidence to woo JFK’s widow? What man could approach the myth, she’d partly created herself, of glamor and brilliance?

  • Thomas Larson says:

    Marvelous, Richard. Now I really want to see it. TL

  • This is an incredible review of an incredible movie. So much to think about here, especially in terms of how you show us the script’s narrative techniques. Amazing that it won no Oscars.

    I was working in book publishing in NYC when Jackie became an editor, I think at Doubleday, where a colleague/friend worked. Mary used to tell us stories of how she’d see Jackie in the hallways, etc. She said one day Jackie got off the elevator with her assistant and she was beside herself. Apparently, she’d just come out of an editorial meeting, and she said to her assistant something like, “Now we’re going to have to take the entire book apart and start all over again….” I recall that, at the time, in my young naiveté and ignorance, I regarded Jackie as something of an airhead who waltzed into a high position in publishing while the rest of us had to scramble….now, of course, I see how little I knew her; I just knew the superficial woman portrayed by the media. Thanks for this extraordinary review.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Valorie! I see we’re in the same club—fans of a stunning film that’s almost gone into a black hole, at least compared with those in the Oscar club.

      Yes, what a revisionist enterprise this all is. Because we know her middle act, Onassis, and her final one, in book publishing, the movie implicitly comments. I’d always thought her book gig a celebrity thing too, knowing really nothing about her. But she was a reader, and went to literature for understanding as well as beauty, and acted on what she found. This movie isn’t her, it can’t be, but it’s a counter theory, at the least, to what most of us received or reflexively assumed.

  • Yes, at the time I did not appreciate her love and appreciation for art and literature and beauty, and her knowledge. She sought to share this love and beauty with others through books – how admirable and worthy is that?

  • Thanks, Richard, for all the careful legwork you did for this post. I too love the movie and was a great fan of all the Kennedys in the 1960s. When Jack Kennedy died, I wrote my own response and created a “book” of memories. Clippings, etc. I was 15.

    You would love the braided structure! I thought it worked well also, though I only saw the movie once. :-)

    The schtick with the reporter did not seem right to me. I googled the Time magazine essay when I got home and saw that it was the very sympathetic White who wrote it, and not some hard boiled stereotype. That was the weakest part of the movie. The reporter’s skepticism made Jackie come off as more manipulative and calculating than I like to believe she was. Why is it that conflict is so valued by writers that they insert it where it didn’t exist in real life?

    It was HER belief in narrative and in beauty that drove her interest in history. And I think the Camelot allusion was a good one. I disagree with the editors and evidently with White’s later assessment. Yes, it was sentimental, but it served to assuage the PTSD not only of Jackie herself but it gave her a story that would help her children, and the country, move forward. The English legend became American myth, via connection to LIncoln.

    She was only 34 years old! Thank you for pointing out that fact. Wow.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you for your informed take, Shirley!

      I’d meant, per usual, to write a much shorter post, merely pointing out the structure. But I got interested in who actually wrote it, and was dumbfounded when I researched and saw he’s president of NBC news. (Nice that it happens to be my favored network of late.) He has one of the lowest internet profiles I’ve ever seen, too. Very little biographical information on him. Any regular blogger has more out there. A man of some mystery, or at least great discretion.

      I favor print, and feel it’s still a more nuanced and highly developed medium than film—maybe that’s why I blame the director, not the writer, for that bit of lame license regarding the reporter. A funny sideline on that: he’s played by a fine actor, Billy Crudup, who played a hippy carpenter in another great, under-appreciated new movie, 20th Century Women. Very memoiristic, and a must-see.

      Another player from that movie who showed up in Jackie is “Indie queen” Greta Gerwig, utterly adorable as Jackie’s assistant and likewise, in 20th Century Women, as a hip photographer.

  • LanieTankard says:

    Marvelous review essay, Richard!

  • cynthia says:

    I just watched this two nights ago with my mother and was mesmerized. Having some memory of the events made the film even more fascinating. (I didn’t know Jackie smoked.) You’ve written a terrific critical essay. I love the way you break the film down into segments to see exactly how it’s put together. I often do this with books but have never done it with a film. I’ve always wanted to analyze Pulp Fiction–a film I hate but admire–in this fashion. And yet this film–I felt as if it never quite rose to what it could have been, that there was a flaw or a missed opportunity or a lack of vision that kept it a B film instead of an A film. Your essay makes me want to watch it again.

    • Richard says:

      Ditto on Pulp Fiction, Cindy! I annoyed a continuing studies student by my enthusiasm for Jackie, since she disliked it, but couldn’t, or didn’t, say why. I was, like you, mesmerized, in my case by the storytelling. It was not till the second time, however, that I fully warmed to it. I think its storytelling, and really the intent of it, had its effect on me.

      Her secret service agent at the time has given a very interesting interview to a British newspaper (I read it on line somewhere) highly critical of the movie. Of course how could he like it? But he praised Portman’s performance, mentioning the accent, which seemed a huge concession—how could she possibly seem like JK to anyone who really knew her? But he hated the film for its “concoctions,” including Jackie’s chain-smoking, since he said she didn’t smoke that much . . .

      I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that Hollywood fictionalizes. But, as I said, the reporter at first bothered me, seeming both an inaccurate stereotype and emotionally false. I gradually came to appreciate, to feel I understand, the director’s strategy. It was overkill, so to me an aesthetic flaw, aside from factuality, but art’s handmade!

      A friend who works in a movie theatre said reactions are very strong, pro and con, though she didn’t say why.

      • Richard says:

        Meant to add that my hero Anthony Lane, the New Yorker critic, also disliked it. He found it intrusive and presumptuous. (Yeah, but you’re a BRIT, Tony.)

        • cynthia says:

          This is all fascinating. The more I think about it, the more it seems that something kept the film small–not so much a B film rather than an A film but a small film rather than a big film. I wonder if it was the reporter–using that narrow lens rather than something that might crack the story open. In any event, definitely worth another watch.

          • Richard says:

            Wow, this gets bigger. I’ll go there with you! A more conventional approach—chronological—might have seemed to elevate the film—we’re used to that, and if it were limited, like Jackie, to the shooting and aftermath, maybe that would have seemed to more soberly consider that slice? It would have emphasized that it was a tiny slice, two weeks in her life, but so magnified. That would’ve put the reporter at the end.

            Maybe, in trying to give us her experience by shattering the chronology, and just trying to be more interesting/clever about it, with the reporter throughout, they risked losing the audience’s focus. Certainly the first time I saw it, I was not as moved as I was the second time. By then, I knew the basic story and could appreciate the structure and what it was trying to do. And it did its work on me.

            The simpler way might have had a more immediate impact. It would have seemed to make a bigger statement about how short a period it was focused on. I wouldn’t have watched it again, but wouldn’t have felt compelled to, to try to learn from its structure. Is this elegant simplicity vs. cleverness, a risk with innovation? It’s possible, though, that the chronological film would have seemed ponderous and plodding. Jackie is jagged, like her experience, which is the ostensible point . . .

            • cynthia says:

              Chronological is one other option (in which case I would have cut the reporter as a thread altogether–maybe one scene) but another option would have been to tell it a la Titanic–an older Jackie looking back on that week. That kind of frame would have busted us out of the narrow focus of those few days and perhaps given us more of Jackie. But she never gave the world much of her real self. I think the problem is not so much the braided narrative but that the film did what Jackie did. Kept us on the outside–except for the bedroom scenes and the crying scene. It gave us what we already know–the stoical, composed JK. The real problem may be the subject herself–ever enigmatic as she was.

              • Richard says:

                Neat, Cindy. I agree, the film did reflect her opaque quality. Second time I watched it, I saw how Portman seemed to slip in, because of that reserve or whatever it was, little micro humanizing instants. Such as a fleeting insecure look. But in the foreground braid, with the reporter, she was completely armored. It was not flattering, though understandable, gradually. Hard to know whether, overall, how much of that was JK and how much was the times—can’t imagine the warmth of Michelle Obama back then. Public figures used to talk in such formal, affected ways, for instance.

  • owen1936 says:

    Richard, I was slow happening upon your post and am glad that you are back. I also felt that Jackie was one of the top five films this year and that Portman deserved the Oscar, and I was surprised when it seemed to fall beneath the radar. After reading what you have written, I wish that I, too, had seen it twice, although even then it would be unlikely that I would have seen all that you saw. Your knowledge and experience give you X-ray vision and by your writing you help me to see beneath the surface of things. Thank you, thank you.

    A film that I enjoyed lately was “I Am Not Your Negro” based on James Baldwin’s work. It was more than a documentary, artfully done, and also had a layered look.

    Again, welcome back.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Dave. I agree completely on the Baldwin documentary—stunning, can’t stop thinking about it. I am almost finished reading his book The Devil Finds Work, a devastating critique of racism in film, by one who, at the same time, loves cinema.

      We got to see “I Am Not Your Negro” in a showing at Ohio State, and since then I have been trying to see it again, without success. Yes, for that layered structure you mention, especially in regard to how the film juxtaposes past racist rallies with today’s. I guess I don’t really need to analyze it as closely as I did here, since I got its structure and its point pretty fully the first time. But it’s just overpowering regarding pervasive white racism, as you know. I wish every white American could see it.

      I think I should try to write something about it, even though my inability to see it again soon (ultimately we can stream or buy it) means I’ll feel my effort falls short. Not everything must be definitive, I tell myself . . .

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Richard, this is one of the best reviews I have ever read! I am in future debt to you for the glorious time I anticipate having when I watch this movie. Thank you.

  • jzrart says:

    I’m sorry I missed this one, but will look for it now! Thanks!!

  • LanieTankard says:

    Oh my, Richard, I just watched JACKIE and if I rated it on a 1-5 tear scale, I’d give it a full 5 tears. I frankly hadn’t anticipated such depth of emotion and insight. Of course, that aspect may have been heightened by the fact that I’m just about to finish reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which I highly recommend (length notwithstanding), so this movie was thus quite timely in my mind. I also loved 20th CENTURY WOMEN, and Crudup and Gerwig in both. One thought: I wonder if Crudup was playing White as a reporter who uses goading psychological manipulation to force comments out of an interviewee in order to get great quotes, but then he got frustrated when he got them but they were immediately null and voided by Jackie’s “…but of course you can’t use that.” I think Camelot was an apt metaphor to sum up that period—certainly one to hold on to in such times when we have the anti-Camelot White House. Rereading your review just after watching JACKIE was helpful. Thanks again for a great review!

    P.S. I will say I loved MOONLIGHT and thought it deserved to win. I was much less enamored with LA LA LAND.

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