Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy in Jackie (IMDb).
Written by Noah Oppenheim and directed by Pablo Larraín
Rated R, 100 min, released theatrically in limited release 2 December 2016
No one is talking about Jackie. And why not? For a second there it seemed as though it would be included in the Awards Season Club, if for Natalie Portman’s performance alone, but then it silently got swept aside, lost amid louder and more easily digestible films. I understand why some people might have hesitant or negative reactions to this film: the casting of Portman, and the photogenic poster seem to indicate that it is a traditional Awards-Baiting biopic about a classic American icon we all love to imagine we know (see: any sports heroes, Marilyn Monroe).
Life After JFK
Once you sit down to view the film you realize it is not traditional. Directed by art house Chilean director Pablo Larrain – who is hardly interested in creating a cookie cutter biopic with shades of blind patriotism – the film is a highly subjective take on Jackie Kennedy’s immediate life after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the last week of November 1963. The storytelling and editing is nonlinear and the performance by Portman is slightly campy (the accent is magnetic, but actually not that far from the real Jackie’s. Have you ever seen real clips from her White House tour?) but also thorny in an unexpected way. The experience is likely not what baby boomers seeing a film about a glamorous American legend are expecting to get.
But I loved it, and for all of the reasons it could be seen as weird. Portman is truly magnetic, and brings a depth and spine of steel to a woman many just see as a fashion plate and Stoic Widow of History. What I loved most about the experience of viewing the film was the interest in Jackie Kennedy that it sparked in me. I was guilty too, of only thinking of her as a smiling, dutiful, beautiful wife, and not too much more. But the film’s main plot follows Jackie’s attempts to solidify –and in a sense, wholly create – a lasting legacy for her husband, whose career as President was finished before his first term was up.
It reminded me of the same interest sparked in Eliza Hamilton. I probably don’t need to explain what Hamilton the musical is about – the name alone should help you, if not the national year-long hype. While the musical follows the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, as he attempts to create a legacy he can be proud of, the show is simultaneously introducing us to Eliza Hamilton – another quiet and dutiful wife of a famous politician – and tipping its hat to her in its final number: she was the one who survived the rest of her family, and lived to tell their stories the way they would have wanted. While Alexander fought to leave his mark, he often got in his own way; without Eliza’s help after his death and her own desire to solidify her husband’s legacy, all of his accomplishments may have been truly lost to history –inaccessible to even biographers Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Eliza and Jackie actually have quite a lot in common, besides being wives. Their husbands were some of the more famous, precocious and handsome war heroes-turned politicians in American history. The men each had a semi-outsider status at their respective times: Hamilton as an immigrant from the island of Nevis and Kennedy as an Irish Catholic (hard to believe that being Catholic was once an unusual event in politics, but there you go), and they each had notable extramarital liaisons. Eliza and Jackie were known for playing the wife role so well, with excellent hostess skills and motherly qualities that other political and public figures adored in them. Sadly, they both experienced the loss of two or more young children before their husbands were killed at relatively young ages themselves (46 for Kennedy and 47 for Hamilton). Eliza and Jackie went on to survive their spouses by 50 and 31 years, respectively.
What both Jackie and Hamilton do so well is to spotlight the large part these widows played in creating the legacies we now associate with Kennedy and Hamilton. The women know how important story is in history, and are often the only figures in the narratives that truly seem aware of how what we know of as “history” works. Jackie frequently refers to prior presidents and their legacies, even questioning others to prove a point about the legacies of the other assassinated Presidents McKinley, Garfield and Lincoln. What do you know about these men? She wants to know. No one she asks knows about McKinley and Garfield, but they know that Lincoln “ended slavery and won the Civil War.” Now that may not necessarily be 100 percent factual and true, but that is the shorthand of Lincoln’s legacy. And why do people remember him? Jackie decides that it is partially due to his lavish and extensive public state funeral, a funeral which she plans to emulate for John’s service, despite protestations that it’s too much for a President of only two years and potentially unsafe for her and the children. The way a man is buried will reflect the way he is remembered, and she charges ahead with the plans, ultimately succeeding in creating an event that is televised to the entire nation, garnering their attention and heightening their grief to tragic and historically epic proportions that ensure that the memory of John as a great man lives on. In the interview that frames the story, Jackie speaks to a seasoned reporter who initially is not buying her attempts to control his portrayal of her. He wants the “truth”; she wants to continue the idealized “truth” of the Kennedys. She ultimately wins that battle as well, helping to create the “Camelot” myth of the golden years of the Kennedys in the White House – the People’s House. Camelot, as highlighted in a brilliant spinning-out-in-grief sequence set to Richard Burton’s speak-singing from the musical (coincidentally, a favorite of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s), is the place where nothing can go wrong and young promising men cannot be shot down next to their beautiful wives.
Miranda’s interpretation of Eliza Hamilton has her key actions related to whether she is taking herself out of, or putting herself back into “the narrative.” By “the narrative,” she means of history not just the specific history of Alexander’s life. She is aware of the story being created around them, and that what they choose to leave behind will be used in future years to construct a story – a narrative – that may not be entirely factual or representative of the real life players. That is why, upon Alexander’s publication of a pamphlet which details his extramarital affair which crushes and humiliates her and her family, she chooses to erase her reaction to the event by burning her correspondence with Alexander. “Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted,” she sings as she burns their letters: she has already been put in a vulnerable place to be judged and pitied, without her consent. She is using her knowledge of future historian-storytellers to be wise to the fact that her words and their letters could be found in the future and her personal feelings could be turned into a story that is trite, false, or just exploitative of her intimate experience.
After she and Alexander gradually warm to each other again, upon his tragic death she decides to put herself back into the narrative by taking charge in the documentation of Alexander’s achievements and their life together in the hopes that, when “future historians” inevitably write his story, they do so in a light that favors her family and the man she loved.
Like Eliza, Jackie is also very aware that people who purport to document history, and biographical facts, are often telling stories as much as the fiction writers are. Early in the film, Jackie asks her interviewer: “Does writing something down make it true?” She knows it doesn’t – and carries out this belief through her own rewriting of the reporter’s story as he takes notes throughout. She insists television is better, more truthful – because people can “see it for themselves.” But we can see that isn’t necessarily true, either. She arranges for JFK’s elaborate funeral service to be televised, which further cements her goal: to memorialize this man in such high fashion that his power, greatness and legacy cannot be denied. That funeral is much more than a President of two years should have expected to receive, and at the time he really didn’t have much of a legacy in place. Robert Kennedy laments to Jackie that he doesn’t know what his brother will be remembered by – “what did we accomplish? We could have done so much!” Jackie’s use of “truth” in television to tell the story of a great man who will be mourned by the nation strong arms history into creating a mythical time of perfection and success within the Kennedy presidency.
After viewing the finales of Hamilton and Jackie, you begin to wonder: who really writes history? The old adage tells us that the victors of war are the ones who write it but what “victors” really means is the survivors – and the wives of history nearly always outlive the men.
Photos: Stephanie Branchu/Fox Searchlight, IMDb, Wikipedia, LA Times