“Oh, let me be a part of the narrative,” sings Eliza Hamilton, wife of a Founding Father, of the powerhouse stage musical Hamilton. Rarely have history books studied the wives of the powerful men of history, but this year, we have grown more conscious about commending the ladies, be it Eliza Hamilton or Michelle Obama, because whether or not their status and power were defined by the politician men they loved and married, they did their part.
Staged as an apolitical tale, Jackie is a fascinating endeavor, as First Ladies in cinema, like in the real-life field of their husband’s politics, are the supporting players of the nation’s welfare. But in Pablo Larrain’s portrait, the wife—now widow—commands the spotlight, the foreground, of the narrative even as her power wanes in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy has been subjected showers of controversy and scrutiny of vantage points and eyewitnesses and speculative points, but rarely has pop culture touched on the emotions of his widow, Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy and her point-of-view.
There are two narratives at war in Jackie: One is a decent but disposable showcase of dialogue, the other a masterpiece streaming through sentiments.
Allow me to defer to the masterpiece first: Jackie’s days in the before-then-after of the assassination of her husband, paced in a dream-like atmosphere, picturesque, real, artifice. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography follows her, sometimes in stark close-ups of her anguished or forced placid countenance, as she maneuvers through her life, removing the stockings stained with her husband’s blood and explaining to her children why their father isn’t coming back—he has joined their baby brother in Heaven, she tells them. The close-ups invade her space. Even before her husband’s death, the close-ups allow us to see, through her magazine-smiling visage, a tint of exhaustion. Although she intends to stage the funeral that would do her late husband’s justice, even her memories of her husband are imperfect, referring to his petty accusations and his infidelities. They weren’t the immaculate Camelot Couple the public dreamed them to be.
Now to the disposable parts: The film opens with an interviewer meeting Jackie as she asserts she wants to tell her story right. The dialogue in the framing device would work for a well-done “Jackie: The Stageplay,” but in this film, the steady restrained shots of the framing device throws an abrupt anchor to the cinematographic momentum of the stream-of-consciousness maneuver where Jackie sleepwalks through her final days at the White House, usurped from her power. I’ll entertain Pablo Larrain and scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim with an old creative writing lesson of “killing your darlings,” a process of picking-and-choosing and trimming out material—alas, even the good ones like Jackie’s poignant vocal need to tell her story before the journalist—so the great and the resonant don’t get bogged down by the extraneous. It does offer a verbal character study intrigue: As Jackie occasionally accuses and assumes the journalist of being interrogative, knowing that her words can easily be diluted and consequential, as she tries to exert control over the narrative he’s recording. Unfortunately, it also spells out its conclusions rather than trusts its audience to construe Jackie. We’d rather admire the furniture than have it explained to us.
The Hamilton lyrics “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story” rings in my head as Jackie has the burden of orchestrating her husband’s grand legacy, and her undertaking ends up defining her own legacy for better or worse. Planning all the pageantry of the funeral becomes Jackie’s final act of power before she steps out of the White House. Jacqueline Kennedy wasn’t known for much, other than her glamour magazine-pretty poise and her restoration of the White House, which earned her easy accusations of being a flighty debutante with “a vanity project.” But beneath her shyness and her subdued performance before the live cameras documenting her tour of the White House, we sense an intelligent woman who knows she often doesn’t get the chance to prove such in public eyes. Though the film alludes to her writing experience, Jackie knows she’s more famous for being the bride of a President and national fashion icon. A profound epiphany strikes her, one I wish was told through action rather than explicit dialogue: The funeral was all for her, not her late husband.
Natalie Portman has the debutante poise down and a whispery accent, on the verge of historical embellishment, but in modulation with the film’s somber tone. She also gives Jackie the essence of her rarely seen astuteness. Portman also pegs down the stiltedness of movement and strained dignity, particularly in my favorite shot, where she wanders away from the funeral planners, past the line-up of tombstones in Arlington Cemetery like a disenfranchised soul needing directions to the afterlife. Although for the majority of time, she maintains tranquil composure, sometimes she bursts into a storm, as if the disquiet has only been the eye of hurricane before despair rages again.
I appreciate Larrain’s need to keep Jackie’s retrospective musings as if he wanted to preserve clarifications for some of Jackie’s inconsistent actions. But if only the film was audacious enough to lift that anchor and freely show Jackie trembling through her numbered White House days, because I could mute those sequences and still be immersed in the torrent of Jackie uncertainties on facial expressions alone and believe in her sudden emotional swerves—she is in shock, and trauma does muddle memories, after all. If only Larrain devised this approach: convert the perceived “necessities” of the dialogue-driven explanations into the visual meat of the narrative and entrust Portman’s performance to tell it without words.
Nothing lasts forever, and Mrs. Kennedy knows a First Lady will inevitably pack up and leave the White House. But so tragically premature was her departure that she had to watch her First Lady successor—and her husband’s successor—stare at a roll of curtain drapes to settle in their new home—her own home. But by the end, lifting the script of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, I say, she certainly sustained the grand illusion [of Camelot] with a marvelous grace.
Even if she lit only a flicker in history.
Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When she’s not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she’s doing cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, engaged in Star Wars fanfictions, or hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. Her columns and poems have popped up on The Cougar, Mosaics: The Independent Women Anthology, Glass Mountain. Her flash fiction recently earned an Honorable Mention title in Sweater Weather magazine. She has her own Weebly portfolio and contributes thinkpieces to Birth.Movies.Death. She’s also lurking in the shadows waiting for you to follow her on Twitter.
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