“I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.”
This line is merely one of many contradictory statements strewn throughout “Jackie,” Pablo Larraín’s biopic of the iconic first lady. You might not expect to see this kind of statement in a traditional biopic, but “Jackie”—starring Natalie Portman in what should be a career-defining role—goes far beyond the constraints of its genre, where it arrives at catharsis for both subject and viewer.
The film presents Jackie Kennedy to us by displaying the different versions of herself she “plays” throughout several framing devices—an interview with a reporter for Life magazine (Billy Crudup) days after her husband’s death, a conversation with a Catholic priest (John Hurt), the first lady’s Emmy-winning White House tour, and, most importantly, her attempts to secure JFK’s legacy in his funeral arrangements.
In each, the first lady portrays a different aspect of herself: the grieving widow for the public after witnessing her husband’s assassination; the poised professional during her television appearance; the angry solitary figure she cuts in her first moments alone in the East Wing, pounding vodka and smoking as she tries on different outfits.
Yet what, of all this, is true? The script, by the producer of the “Today Show,” Noah Oppenheim, credits no source material, and the film heavily explores the idea that history is created by the way in which historical events are interpreted, rather than the events themselves. Perhaps to hint at this ideology, Larraín edits the film in a subtly ominous way—shots within individual scenes do not always align perfectly, creating an impression of inaccuracy.
And still history is something of an obsession—both for Jackie and, well, “Jackie.” If there’s one string connecting the fragmented storyline, it’s a focus on how history is told. Jackie, who personally raised thousands of dollars to purchase antiques for the White House, holds a rather interesting view of it: “I believe the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us.”
Who creates history? Those, like her husband, who participate in and mold events, or the writers, who spin the information displayed to the public?
Indeed, these contradictions define the film. Jackie is ferocious but vulnerable, clever yet incredibly selfish. The beautiful costume and production design contrast with everything else in the film: it feels like a dream slowly becoming a nightmare.
For all the moments of Jackie dancing with her husband (JFK is portrayed, almost wordlessly, by Danish lookalike Caspar Phillipson) at a presidential ball, the film returns to the assassination multiple times, as Jackie must constantly. The memories no longer exist without one another. Keeping with the theme, the brilliant, Oscar-nominated score by Mica Levi seems to take the expected orchestral music and slowly deflate it, as if she were scoring a horror movie. Additionally, the score is often contrasted with the title theme of the musical “Camelot”, a song that appears repeatedly throughout the film.
The reference, like much of the film (which premiered in September, months before the 2016 election), is unwittingly timely in a world where the White House has pitted itself against the media and spews countless lies to its citizens.
The musical intones that “for one brief shining moment, there was a Camelot,” an age where “ordinary men [would band] together to fight for a better world.”
As Jackie says, her husband, “had ideals. Ideals he could rally others to believe in.”
“But there won’t be another Camelot. Not another Camelot.”