Posted Sunday, February 26, 2017.
“My wife’s a shy, quiet girl, but when things get rough, she can handle herself pretty well.”
Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy aboard Air Force One on the flight home from Dallas the night of November 22, 1963 in one of the moments of extreme stillness that mark her Academy Award nominated performance in Jackie.
We catch him only in glimpses. In the little time he’s there he’s often off to the side of the frame and already moving out of it. The few times we do see him clearly, it’s at a distance or through a lens. When we finally get an extended look, when we get to see him being not the President but himself, relaxed, having fun, he’s moving too fast and through a crowd, and then...he turns his back on us and that’s the last we see of him. His back, and her face as she holds onto him but afraid to hold on tight, wondering just who it is, just what it is, she’s holding on to.
It’s her movie, of course. It’s her grief being observed. The movie opens with that fact. The first image we’re given is of her in close up and although we recognize her immediately it’s not “Jackie” we focus on. It’s the harrowing sadness in this woman’s face. And the rage.
We see it all at once, the heartbreak, the loneliness---we can’t yet see if she’s all by herself but we feel it, how she’s isolated in her grief---we see---feel---the almost unendurable sense of not just loss but being lost. And we see that she’s angry but at what? At what happened? At the people---the strangers, the enemies---who did it or who wished it? At the people---the friends, the family---who don’t understand, who don’t feel it the way she feels it. At him? Why? What for? For the things he did to her and didn’t do for her and with her and what he left unsaid and unfinished.? For leaving her! As if it was his choice, as if he’d done it deliberately. At herself for…for what? At...Death. At all of it. But what good is that? What can she do with that? There. That’s the rest of the movie. What is she angry at? Who is she angry with? Where does she put her anger? What can she do with it? What can she do about it?
She’s a Kennedy, even if they never really accepted her. And Kennedys do things.
Meticulously directed by Pablo Larrain, with an insightful and thought-provoking script by Noah Openheim, and featuring an inspired performance by Natalie Portman, Jackie is one of the two best of the retellings of the Kennedy legend brought to either the big or small screen. The other is the TV play The Missiles of October starring William Devane and a shockingly young Martin Sheen. Third on my list is Thirteen Days, a good movie with fine performances of the Kennedy brothers by Bruce Greenwood and Stephen Culp but it feels a little too romanticized and suffers, for me, in comparison to The Missiles of October. (I haven’t seen PT-109 since I was kid.) The many, many---too many---TV movies and miniseries tried to cover too much ground and wound up being mostly about our getting to watch the Kennedys being Kennedys either as characters in a real-life soap opera or figures in a historical pageant. They’ve all also suffered from miscasting of one or both of the Kennedy Brothers. Sheen, for example, made an almost perfect Bobby. He was far from perfect as Jack. And it’s seemed to me that every other actress who’s played Jackie has tried to find the essence of the part in dressing like her, turning her into First Lady Barbie. By focusing on single events, The Missiles of October and Jackie are able to show the Kennedys doing things rather than just living through their times. Jackie is about Jacqueline Kennedy’s actively dealing with her grief and Portman finds the essence of the person in what she does to deal with her grief. The character of Jackie is defined by her actions and therefore in action and not by her pillbox hat.
In action is the right word but it’s maybe misleading since much of what Portman does requires her to be very, very still. But maintaining her stillness is an action, especially when we know that what Jackie wants to do is run screaming from the scene. Or start throwing things.
When I say it’s her movie, of course I mean Jacqueline Kennedy’s. But I also mean it’s Portman’s. Jackie is about her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy the way Spielberg’s Lincoln is about Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. It’s not that in either case that there’s no story there without the lead actors. It’s that the story is told through them. There’s more to the similarity than that. Both Lewis’ Lincoln and Portman’s Jackie are aware of themselves as characters in a story and seem to be watching themselves act out their parts with sharply critical eyes. Actually, in Jackie’s case there’s no “seems” to it. Her watching herself---seeing herself as playing a part---is explicitly shown and it’s treated as one of her acts of heroism. She knows who she has to be and what she has to do for the people who are watching her. One of those people happens to be herself and her acting is for her own benefit. She has to make herself see herself being the person she needs to be to survive her ordeal.
She’s not entirely alone---nor is Portman left to carry the movie entirely by herself. Jackie has her brother-in-law Robert and her longtime friend and assistant Nancy Tuckerman, and Portman has Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig.
Bobby is the only one around her whose grief come close to her own, which brings them together and gives them both comfort and hope, but it goes only so far. For one thing, they’re in a profound way mourning different men. The fact that they’re the two who knew him best yet they knew him differently makes them wonder if they really did know him, increasing the sense of loss for both while calling into question their sense of knowing each other and their own selves? Their shared grief paradoxically makes them strangers to each other.
For another thing, Bobby is having an existential crisis of his own---the crisis, the one that turned the ruthless political hatchet man into the social justice warrior the nation’s poor and dispossessed loved as one of their own and ecstatic crowds sometimes seemed to be about to tear apart in their need to touch him as if reaching for his blessing. That’s implied in one bitter line. Jackie is never not her story.
Nancy is a more cheering and comforting presence---for us. Even before the assassination, her role is Jackie’s hopeful conscience, and none of us is truly at ease in the company of our conscience. Nancy’s job as Jackie’s friend and social secretary is to remind her it’s her---Jackie’s---job to be cheerful and upbeat. Her signature gesture is signaling for Jackie to smile. It’s in one way a hug and a kiss. In another a scolding.
Sarsgaard may be my favorite of all the screen Bobbys. He doesn’t do an impersonation but he conveys the essence of the man, at least as I know him through biographies and film clips. Gerwig warms the screen every time she appears. But their real jobs are to make us feel Jackie’s isolation---how lonely she must have been if she couldn’t find comfort in the company of these two good and caring people!---and to keep us liking Jackie when she’s at her most difficult, and that’s something the movie doesn’t shy away from.
Dealing with loss and grief can bring out the best in someone while at the same time bringing out the worst.
Portman isn’t the least bit afraid of letting her Jackie be unlikable for stretches of times. She’s capricious. She’s self-indulgent. She’s demanding and unfair. She’s deliberately difficult. She lets her anger get the better of her. She can be ruthless in getting what she wants, one of her most Kennedyesque traits. The moments she seems to be giving in to self-pity and despair are understandable and forgivable but Portman doesn’t play them for sympathy. In fact, she makes them unattractive. But Portman folds it all into what turns out to be a stunningly life-like portrait of a complicated individual who managed to be heroic in getting herself through the worst days of her life and the nation through one of the most traumatic moments in its history.
Portman doesn’t really look like Jackie Kennedy. The hair, the voice, the costumes by Madeline Fontaine contribute to the illusion but it’s Portman herself making us believe we’re watching a real person who must be Jackie Kennedy because who else could it be living through this horror?
But, actually, she could be any young wife and mother suddenly widowed, forced by circumstance and expectation to be everybody else’s source of solace and strength and wondering if she’s up to it all and then knocked for another loop by having it revealed to her that we’re living in a universe ruled by an indifferent God who has no special use for any single one of us.
The story is centered around the planning of President Kennedy’s funeral which for dramatic and thematic reasons Larrain and Oppenheim have Jackie seem to be handling down to last detail on her own,
As if she was just any widow who has to take care of everything herself. In reality, if she’d done nothing, if she’d let her grief overtake her and withdrawn the funeral would have come off practically as it did. There were protocols in place. There were many people whose jobs were to plan and stage large-scale state affairs, like Presidents’ funerals. Political and diplomatic considerations she wasn’t aware of worked out by people she didn’t even know existed figured into things. The Military had a say. The Catholic Church had its say. In reality, she was able to leave most of things in the hands of others while she kept herself busy with what in comparison looks almost like minutiae but were in fact the most personal and human and compassionate details. Deciding what guests to put in which bedrooms in the White House. Writing thank you notes to friends and close acquaintances who’d sent their condolences, writing notes to herself reminding herself whom to write to next as soon as she had time---at the top of that list, most heartbreakingly to learn, was the widow of the other husband and father Lee Harvey Oswald murdered that day, Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. But the movie puts it all in her hands. Every decision’s hers. And she’s making the decisions almost whimsically, in accord with her confused and ever-changing feelings and in defiance of her own better judgment and against the advice of friends and the wishes of the other Kennedys. It’s half-suggested that if she had left it to anyone else it would have been a small private affair for friends and family back in Massachusetts.
It also seems from what we’re shown that her only model was Lincoln’s funeral, even though FDR had died less than 20 years before. Someone remarks on the ridiculousness of her putting JFK on the level of the President who ended slavery and won the Civil War when he couldn’t get his Civil Rights bill through Congress and had very little else to show for his efforts in other areas. Even Bobby expresses disappointment---angry, self-accusing, self-disgusted disappointment---at how few achievements his brother's presidency had worth boasting of. The Cuban Missile Crisis is all he can think of that’s worth history's notice and he wonders if his brother really deserves credit for solving a crisis he created himself. The funeral she has planned is too grandiose for a minor and unsuccessful president, never even mind the comparisons to Lincoln. On top of that, it’s not like him.
“He drove cars, he didn’t ride horses,” says the journalist whose interview with her provides the film’s framing device. He’s referring to the horse-drawn gun carriage that bore the coffin and the riderless black stallion with the empty boots reversed in the stirrups following behind. What was the point of that? Horses were her passion? Was it all about her, really? Was she laying claim to a husband she didn’t really have, didn’t really know?
The spectacle wasn’t befitting of the man. The President wasn’t worthy of the spectacle.
And she recognizes the absurdity of it all. The pointlessness not only of the funeral itself in its particulars. Of life and death in general. What was the point of acting as if it or he or any of us matter? And that’s all she or any of us are doing, isn’t it, acting as if we matter?
Here she turns to a priest for comfort and guidance, and his only comfort is to tell her he has no comfort to give. God himself provides no answers. “His ways are not our ways,” he says, which doesn’t sound fatuous coming as it does from John Hurt in a beautiful, heartfelt not quite final performance---he completed four more not yet released films before he died, but this one’s about as wonderful a last curtain any actor can hope for. We’re left to find comfort and meaning in life by ourselves, in ourselves. All we can do is get up in the morning and start the day as if it’s going to matter that we are here. This existential view strikes me as a very Catholic as well as a very Kennedy-esque philosophy, almost certainly because it’s an idea I was first introduced to in something I read about Robert Kennedy when I was young. The writer called him a Catholic existentialist which I took to mean someone who found meaning in the act of doing good in the world.
This, of course, is what she is or trying to be. She just can’t articulate it to herself. She tells the priest---confesses---that she doesn’t want to get up in the morning. He rightly takes her to mean she’s contemplating suicide. Her tries to remind her she still has things to live for, two children to care for first and foremost. She reminds him that she has two other children in the grave, a shocking reminder to us that her first child, a daughter, was stillborn, and her fourth child, another son, died shortly after birth only three months before the assassination---she was still grieving his death when they went to Dallas.
So what was she doing? Was it all a vanity? She herself wonders, comparing it to her famous restoration and redecoration of the White House which JFK, with the casual and unintentional cruelty of a husband taking his wife’s feelings for granted, called her “vanity project”. But it turns out there is a comparison and a thematic connection. In the televised tour she gave of the White House---cleverly recreated early in Jackie---she explains what she wanted to do with the place she called “the people’s house.” She wanted visitors to feel at home there because it was a home. It wasn’t just the president’s office with a museum attached. People had lived there, families had been raised there, life had gone in inside. The White House matters because the men and women and children who lived---and died---there mattered. And this, Jackie implies, is the same point of the funeral.
She was staging a people’s funeral. A real man died. A real family was suffering. That’s why she insisted on walking behind the carriage. She wanted people to see his wife and children so they saw him as a man and not just a symbol. But that man was their president. His family was their family. We were all sharing in her grief. She was sharing it with us. That was her message of condolence to America and the whole world:
We matter not because of what God thinks of us but because we matter to each other. Death isn’t just the end of a life. It’s the end of meaning unless those left behind treat that lost life as having had meaning.
Perhaps it was a vanity project, after all, but it’s the vanity of Ecclesiastes. Yes, it is all vanity and seeking after wind, but what else can we do?
Jackie doesn’t end triumphantly. There is no triumphing over Death. There is only defiance. In Jackie, Mrs Kennedy defies Death and its attendant, Meaninglessness. The final image of her we’re left with is of her alone again, except this time alone in a crowd, alone even in his arms, her face full of sadness and unanswerable questions.
Jackie, directed by Pablo Larrain, written by Noah Oppenheim. Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, and Billy Crudup. Rated R. Still in some theaters but available to watch instantly at Amazon. Available on DVD and Blu-ray March 7.
Thanks for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post and would like to help keep this blog running strong, a good way to do it is to buy books. The editors here at the Mannionville Daily Gazette and Almanac recommend William Manchester's classic The Death of a President which might be an unacknowledged source for Jackie. It's available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.