Movie Review: Jackie (2016)
Hollywood has done up the JFK assassination every which way. We’ve seen it from the perspective of the president (many), conspirators to kill the president (“Executive Action”), and the doctors, nurses and FBI men in Dallas the day the president was killed (“Parkland”). We’ve seen movies about men who doubted the official version of the assassination (“JFK”), about the man who killed the assassin (“Ruby”), and about a man who travels back in time to kill the assassin before he can kill the president (“11/22/63”).
Here, Hollywood finally gets around to telling the story from the perspective of the woman sitting next to him in the car.
Myth > History
“Jackie” is an atmospheric movie—a powerful rendering of one of the saddest weekends in American history—but it’s also interested in story. More, it’s interested in story-making and mythmaking, and the difference between the two.
It’s really a tale of post-traumatic stress disorder. Our perspective is Jackie’s (Natalie Portman) throughout. The camera stays close to her face, and we feel her horror, her attempt to process what can’t be processed: wiping her husband’s blood off her face in the Air Force One bathroom; standing stunned as LBJ takes the oath of office; refusing Linda Bird’s entreaties to change out of the blood-splattered pink Chanel suit she was wearing that day. “Let them see what they’ve done,” she says, eyes flashing. She doesn’t remove it until she’s back in the White House, where she showers the blood and viscera of her husband out of her hair. There’s that sad moment telling Caroline and John-John that daddy won’t be coming home. It’s extra sad because we never imagined the scene before, but yes, somebody had to tell them and apparently it was her. One of the many awful tasks she assigned herself that weekend.
The key moment, for both the movie and history, occurs as she rides with Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) in the ambulance taking JFK to the D.C. hospital. She asks the driver and passenger-seat nurse if they know who James Garfield was. They don’t. Then she asks about Abraham Lincoln. Of course they know him.
The rest is her fight to make sure her husband isn’t forgotten like Garfield but remembered like Lincoln.
The movie comes in four parts:
- Jackie being interviewed at Hyannis Port by a journalist (Billy Cruddup), the weekend after the funeral weekend
- Long flashbacks to the assassination and its aftermath—particularly the logistics of the burial and the funeral
- Short flashbacks to the 1962 TV special, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy”
- Jackie’s talks with an Irish priest (John Hurt), as her stillborn babies are reinterred next to their father in Arlington National Cemetery the week after she talks to the journalist.
The parts are at odds with each other: 1) and 2) are about myth-making. Jackie knew people forgot men but remembered myths, so she made JFK’s funeral, his final burial place at Arlington, and his short presidency—comparing it to the big Broadway hit of the day, “Camelot”—mythic. The point of the ’62 White House special was the opposite: It was about bringing history to life. Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant), who helped her redecorate the White House and show it off in that TV special, tells her how important it all was. “They need to know that real men actually lived here,” he says. “Not ghosts and storybook legends. People who faced adversity and overcame it.” But she doesn’t want Kennedy to become Garfield, a forgotten relic of history, so she makes him mythic. She fights everyone in this endeavor.
The Kennedy family originally want a burial site in Massachusetts, but Jackie nixes it (“I don’t mean to upset your mother,” she tells Bobby, “but Brookline is no place to bury a president.”); then she personally chooses the spot at Arlington so many of us have since visited.
LBJ and his team are wary of her funeral plans that mimic Lincoln’s—particularly the dignitaries walking out in the open behind Jack’s casket. At this point they don’t know if Oswald was a lone nut or if there are others out there. For example, there are death threats against visiting French president Charles De Gaulle—and so they suggest bullet-proof cars. They keep going back and forth on this. There’s a great scene between Jackie and LBJ aide Jack Valenti (Max Casella), where, amid the stifled politeness, he seems to get his way. Then just before leaving she says this:
Inform them that I will walk with Jack tomorrow. Alone if necessary. And tell General De Gaulle, if he wishes to ride in an armored car—or in a tank for that matter—I won’t blame him. And I’m sure the tens of millions of people watching won’t either.
She battles the journalist, too. This was the part of the movie I bought into the least, to be honest, even before I knew Cruddup was Teddy White, a Kennedy family friend. Here’s a guy who has access to the most sympathetic woman in the world two weeks after the assassination, and though that access obviously comes with strings attached—she gets to dictate what does or does not wind up in the article—it’s still one of the biggest scoops of the decade. Yet Cruddup seems to shrug his way through the interview. He seems exasperated. There’s an exchange later with the priest, where Jackie asks him what men see in her now:
Priest: Sadness. Compassion. [pause] Desire, maybe. You’re still a young woman, Mrs. Kennedy.
Jackie (wistful): I used to make them smile.
Cruddup's journalist displays little of these feelings. He seems to be rolling his eyes through the endeavor.
Myth relies on history
The casting is a mixed bag. Loved Portman. Caspar Philipson, the Danish actor they got for JFK, is an astonishing look-alike—particularly the eyes—but also a teeny man. Bobby towers over him when it was the opposite in real life. I didn’t buy Cruddup as the journalist, and I didn’t buy Sarsgaard as Bobby—he wasn’t forceful enough or crisp enough. I loved John Hurt as the priest, but even he seemed to have too little sympathy for the most sympathetic woman in the world. At the same time, their scenes together are the best in the movie. Maybe because all the bullshit has receded? It’s Truth with a capital “T”: life, death, confession.
Indeed, my favorite exchange, not just in this movie but for most 2016 movies, is the priest’s recounting of the parable of the blind man. Jackie is wondering what kind of God would allow not only the assassination but also the loss of her two babies, including one in August, and he says the following as they walk in Arlington National Cemetery:
Let me share with you a parable. [pause] Jesus once passed a blind beggar on the road, and his disciples asked: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was made blind so that the works of God could be revealed in him.” ...
Right now you are blind. Not because you’ve sinned. But because you’ve been chosen—so that the works of God may be revealed in you.
I’m an agnostic—in almost everything, really—but if you’re going to reconcile the horrors of the world with a personal, omnipotent God, this is a beautiful way.
“Jackie” was written by Noah Oppenheim, a producer of the “Today” show (of all things), and directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín (“No”), and it's a deeply felt movie and much recommended. Uncommented upon? Jackie created the myth of Camelot, but it was subsequent history that made that myth resonate. This is the myth:
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot
Yet if LBJ hadn’t led to Nixon who led to Reagan; if the Gulf of Tonkin resolution hadn’t gotten us into a full-scale war in Vietnam; if the civil rights movement hadn’t led to the Black Power movement, and if the rich hadn’t kept getting richer and the poor kept getting screwed, it might not have felt like a brief, shining moment. Her metaphor would’ve been an addled thought from a distraught woman. Instead, it feels like the truth.