In life, there is a contradiction that comes with those closest to us. In our eyes, they are something singular: a child, a parent, a spouse. To the rest of the world though, they are something altogether different. They could be an artist, an icon, or a leader. The difficulty in life is reconciling who these people are to us with who these people are to others.
In death, the difficulty grows immensely.
JACKIE is the story of Jaqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), First Lady of the United States from 1961 to 1963. It was November of that year that her husband, John F. Kennedy was assassinated during a motorcade through Dallas.
This film picks up in the wake of her husband’s killing, as Jackie sits for an in-depth interview with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup).
We remember fleeting glimpses into the posh life of a first lady – seeing her give televised tours of The White House, and greet adoring crowds. Mostly though, we follow her closely as she navigates the hours and days after the assassination of her husband.
Jackie keeps The American Attorney General, her brother-in-law Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) close by. He seems to be the only person she truly trusts in the wake of the tragedy. He might also be the only person who can get through to her in such a deeply affecting moment.
Speaking of which, the moment appears to be Jackie’s to own…as she strives to find a balance between the personal wishes she wants to hold true to, and the grand pageantry a fallen leader demands. In a time of deep uncertainty, emotional chaos, and mortal danger, it is Jackie that is leading the way.
She is the one leading the funeral procession…walking full-stride at a time when so many find it hard to even stand up.
Watching Portman play the former first lady, you are never unaware of her playing a part. Her demeanour seems slightly stilted, her cadence feels a bit too proper, her expressions often tailored to the company surrounding her. She is always “playing a part”. But isn’t that what we demand of our first ladies…that they “play a part”? Something in-between model citizen and refined hostess? In candidacy, in servitude, and even in death, the spouses of our world leaders must take on a mantle which is anything but human. Therefore, it’s the glimmers of humanity that Portman gives Jackie that make the performance so special…and they are only that: glimmers.
We don’t see them because Jackie seldom got them. She didn’t get to grieve as a widow, because the world needed her to stand as a survivor.
That dichotomy is the true tragedy of JACKIE – the woman, and the film. In a moment that would make any one person feel a freakish range of emotions, and a mere glimmer of their usual self, Jackie needed to be poise. As darkness fell over America, a nation looked to her to be their beacon. Little did they care that she was grasping in the shadows herself. After the death of a loved one, so many of us would most like to recoil inward, and it is demanded of us that we sit and allow all eyes on us. Take that contradiction and multiply it by one million, and you have Jackie.
So how to underline the gamut of emotions? How to encapsulate the parallel narratives of a family grieving, and an administration handing over power? With melodrama. Death itself is so surreal, the only way to tell it is with fevered looks, charged gestures, sweeping photography and pageantry. Such a tale is no time for black and white; it must be told in Technicolor accompanied by music that sounds like one’s heart being slowly squeezed. That and only that will do to fully illustrate the emotional torment of Camelot.
It’s difficult to understand that at the centre of a national tragedy that stopped the world in its tracks, there was a woman who simply wanted to mourn her husband, and honour him before their children and his brother. Surely, that couldn’t have been Jackie, could it? The woman who invited society into The White House…that woman always dressed so elegantly…she couldn’t be as human as the rest of us, could she?
She can. She was. The very same way that death can strain the most tightly forged familial bonds, it strained The Kennedys and laid siege to Camelot. Watching this film we begin to realize that Jackie might well have been the only person who, to paraphrase the poet, kept her focus while all about her were losing theirs. JACKIE helps lay bare the first lady’s belief in appearances. There were times she eschewed optics, and times she demanded specifics. All of it was in the name of the leader she believed in, and all of it was in the name of the man she loved.
Death has a way of splintering those things for those affected; it’s easy to, say, focus only on the husband, and forget about the friend. We all want to make the loss of a person so much about us that we lose sight of what that same loss is for others…both those close to the dearly departed, and those who are very distant. That’s the beauty of a film like JACKIE – it sits us next to someone who needed to see all sides of a man like JFK and weigh how best to mourn.
There is, of course, no one way that is best to mourn. If there was, though, I’d wager Jaqueline Kennedy might have known what it was.