The Kennedy dynasty is so shrouded in romanticized idolization that hardly a thing about them feels real anymore.
In the five decades since John F. Kennedy’s assassination, so many components of his life, along with the lives of his family and those closest to him, have become so thoroughly mythologized within popular culture that they seem to have existed on a planet all their own, a planet where tragedy is rose-colored and where hardship and flaw stands behind success, style, and legend. You live famously and you die famously and it turns out to be hopeless to escape the widespread idealization that comes and goes with the public’s impression of you.
Cinematic history has proven that bringing the family’s legacy back down to Earth for the sake of entertaining fictionalization is a daunting, and oftentimes impossible to reach, feat. Most undertakings have preferred to focus on all things assassination oriented — likely because storytelling is generally able to be logistically tighter — with mostly television movies (2013’s Killing Kennedy) and miniseries’ (1983’s Kennedy and 2011’s The Kennedys) more willing to attempt to delve into the intimacies of the lives of JFK and his cohorts either because of drastically lowered expectations or because of the extra padding provided for storytelling.
So consider Pablo Larraín’s Jackie to be the very first masterpiece utilizing the Kennedys as its human targets. For once, all consuming is not just the personas of those immersed in the perceived-to-be short-lived world of early 1960s presidential glamour. Riveting, too, is the film’s study of the disconnect that rests between the perception of the outsider and the perception of the self when they’re intertwined with international fame and, later, trauma and tragedy. With the entirety of the movie spent in the aftermath of a crisis, every moment is cloaked in the kind of corporeal bereavement that keeps its characters, and sometimes us, so fragile that an emotional breaking point is near constantly waiting to be pushed past. The world is perpetually closing in, crashing down.
Jackie, commonly known by now in the face of pervasive Oscar fame, examines Jacqueline Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman) dealing with the death of her husband immediately after his murder. The film gives weight to her turmoil through three interconnected storylines, with one spanning from her fateful afternoon in Dallas to the commander-in-chief’s funeral, another set during her famous Life magazine interview conducted just a week after her spouse’s death, and the last following that said interview, with Jackie divulging her true emotional state to a priest (John Hurt). Recreations of 1962 television special A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy are dotted in to capitalize on what it meant to be the eventual Jackie O in 1963.
Respectively does each narrative underline the effect her husband’s assassination had on her. When we see her before she became the world’s most famous widow, as a tour guide woodenly interviewed by Charles Collingwood, she is a vision of a type of perfection so perfect that we’d be unsettled if there were as much as a hair out of place — she’s an embodiment of elegance and sophistication unattainably poised, personality replaced by a masquerade of unsurmountable prestige. (In these scenes was I reminded of recurring assertions on the part of my grandparents that Jacqueline Kennedy was supremely dignified, stylish; an idea of who she was still rests tirelessly in the public conscious.)
But the succeeding narratives are at odds with that perfection. In the days following JFK’s assassination, we see that perfection cracking. For the first time in years is America’s First Lady forced to look at herself in the mirror and see herself as someone who isn’t married to the most powerful man in the United States. Watching her reach that epiphany is mesmerizing. How illuminating it is to see that this polished personification of fashionability and grace is able to shake and rattle in their grief as stormily, as unpredictably emotionally, as any.
In her interview with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), we see her as having accepted the reality of her situation, having accepted that a life of single motherhood and psychological recovery is waiting ahead of her. But she still clings to the image of perfection the public in no doubt continues to see her standing in, firmly demanding that every aspect of the conversation be edited by her in an attempt to match her popular facade. She breaks down in tears on one or two occasions. In other moments, she reveals her deepest, darkest fears. But she doesn’t want the America that idolizes her to know that she’s scared, that she has no idea as to what direction her life is moving toward. She wants the flawless woman they saw giving them a tour of the White House, the woman they’ve seen in Vogue countless times, to live on. “I never said that,” she recurringly purrs between cigarettes after every potentially juicy revelation.
The Jackie we like best, though, is the one walking outdoors in the winter cold, acknowledging her vulnerabilities to the sympathetic Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt). Then and there is she no longer afraid of how others will perceive her. Finally speaking without clipped mannerism, she ceases to be, at least temporarily, the woman who only feels like she can express her true emotional state when not in the presence of another.
We see almost every single one of Jackie’s stages of mourning, and Larraín nervy storytelling acutely allows for a sort of fly-on-the-wall depth that wouldn’t much occur if constrained by a single, sequential plot. (Appearances by Robert Kennedy [Peter Sarsgaard], Lyndon B. Johnson [John Carroll Lynch], and Nancy Tuckerman [Greta Gerwig] highlight the pressure Jackie feels to keep up with who everyone wants her to be.) Through being submerged in an ocean of emotion, the current unforgiving and capricious, we’re better transported into our protagonist’s hellacious realm of anger and sadness. Mica Levi’s divisive score (unbearably blaring) is oppressive but ultimately a brilliant mimicker of the inescapable sirens of sorrow going off in Mrs. Kennedy’s head. It enhances the jarring nature of grief screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, director Larraín, and their leading lady so magnificently capture.
Portman, of course, will win the Oscar for Best Actress come February 26 — no other actress this year has given such a transportive, unspeakably despairing, performance. We don’t so much feel as though we know the real Jackie (no one’s at their truest form when grappling with the loss of a spouse) as much as we feel as though we can fathom the hefty war that’s going on inside her head. Her tears are our tears, and her frustrations are ours, too. Some could call her a calculating, aloof. But this is a woman used to performing in doubles; she not only has to be a mother, a wife, and a homemaker to her family: she also has to be those things in a way the American public wants her to be. There are two Jackies — the private and the personal — but in her years as First Lady has the duality frequently meshed. In the film we see her mourn, but we also see a facet of her identity disintegrate, with her picking up the pieces before she loses herself in the process. Portman, so attentive toward every intricate facial movement and bodily tick, exceptionally abbreviates our understanding of the woman she’s playing, remarkably recreating the Jackie O we’ve come to know and additionally convincing us of the person she was when the cameras weren’t hovering over her every move.
Jackie’s greatest accomplishment, then, is its stirring deconstruction of one of America’s great icons, certainly by Portman but also by Oppenheim and Larraín, who craft the scenario surrounding her so conclusively that we leave the theater in a stunned sort of numbness as close to post-Dallas as the movies have ever incurred. That the movie is bold enough to show JFK’s death in full, graphic detail summarizes its mastery. Uninterested in playing to our preconceived ideas and feeding our unwillingness to see the Kennedys as anything other than historical figures to love and admire, it goes for the throat and aspires to tell a story of grief as merciless as grief itself can be. Its towering central performance conjoins its anguished parts and goes for an awesomely affecting sum. This is the best movie of 2016.