Jackie (2016), dir. Pablo Larraín

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There’ll be great Presidents again–and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me–but there’ll never be another Camelot again. Once, the more I read of history the more bitter I got. For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But then I realized history made Jack what he was.

Jacqueline Kennedy, 29th November 1963

Pablo Larraín has built his career exploring the darkness of Chilean history and Pinochet’s legacy: concentration camps, genocide, American intervention. As we see in Nostalgia for the Light (2010), Chile’s past exists in fragments, entire lives as faded photographs or memories. In Larraín’s film Neruda (2016), we see the power of the underground and written word to counter official narratives, whilst No (2012) offers an affirming call to democracy.

Jackie is easy to imagine as a miniseries, submerging the viewer into the four days following Kennedy’s assassination, drawing from multiple sources. We might question why these stories need to be told. Why not make a documentary, or read a monograph? Or Jackie’s original 2 page interview in Life magazine, essentially the film’s framing device? Through its fractured narrative, Jackie reconciles episodes within her life: her 1962 televised tour of the White House; the bullet’s impact; the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson; Kennedy’s funeral.

History is a constantly negotiated process, subject to available sources and the unreliability of memory. Documentaries like HyperNormalisation attempt to give coherent narrative to the immensity of history, yet only reveal biases. There are unquestionable facts – John F. Kennedy really was assassinated on 22nd November 1963 – but no innate truth. In historiography, we must grapple with multiple accounts, determining which is dominant. Jackie’s non-linear narrative confronts memory as emotional experience and living process, rewritten and redefined. As Hidden Figures shows, revisionist counter-histories exist, the women that built history often overlooked.

Kennedy’s legacy remains subject to speculation: an incomplete president, next moves forever unknown. His assassination is the centre of conspiracy debates, centrepiece to time travel paradoxes in 11/22/63 (2011), or in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Magneto becomes implicated in the bullet’s movements; JFK (1991) brought scepticism back into the public sphere. The mockumentary Death of a President (2006) invokes similar imagery, using a fictional assassination of George W. Bush to question the War on Terror and institutional Islamophobia.

Jackie and Bobby attempt to understand an unfinished legacy. Bobby laments Vietnam, NASA and Castro, whilst Jackie questions had Kennedy been assassinated for Civil Rights, would it hold greater meaning? The 60s is defined by assassinations, from MLK to Malcolm X, to Bobby himself only five years later. Fifty years on, we know where these questions lead: Vietnam will fall to communism, man will walk on the moon, Obama will create new ties with Cuba. We know the answer to whether Jack merely handled or created the Cuban Missile Crisis. But moves are never certain. Jackie’s vulnerability within the present moment is heightened, as Valenti fears for her safety as a target alongside other foreign dignitaries.

The journalist concludes Jackie’s “dignity” and “majesty” shall be remembered; we see the plaque commending the Kennedys’ place in history. But we don’t remember. John F. Kennedy is the young president who boned Marilyn Monroe, and declared we would “set sail on this new sea”. JFK’s televised debates with Nixon may have been radical at the time, celebrated by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964) for his “cool” personality, but these are footnotes. Martin Luther King, despite his mixed reputation by the FBI at the time, is our titan of the Civil Rights Movement, with LBJ securing Kennedy’s bill. Jackie is just the slain president’s wife, relative to the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens (1976).

Jackie confronts another legacy: Lincoln, valorised as American icon, his face on pennies, celebrated for ending the American Civil War and slavery. Lincoln emancipated the slaves, why can’t Kennedy end segregation? Jackie is a reader of history, wanting Kennedy’s funeral to symbolically relive Lincoln’s. Physical space stands as symbol and legacy; Bobby takes pride standing in the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, as Jackie points out to her driver, nobody remembers James Garfield or William McKinley, despite their assassinations.

Speaking to the journalist, Jackie exercises power over the manuscript, removing details of the cigarette she smokes and her trauma. As she points out, just because something is written down, it doesn’t make it true. Jackie’s identity as a public figure is a construct, built through her persona in her tour of the White House and in Life. As screenwriter Noah Oppenheim explains to Vox, Jackie was mythmaking, creating an “illusion of transparency” through mass media.

Identity is a central element to Larraín’s films. In Tony Manero (2008), Travolta’s American symbol of disco from Saturday Night Fever (1977) is worn as costume. In Neruda (2016), Pablo Neruda’s identity is created by himself and others, as nom de guerre, poet, communist, traitor and polygamist, shifting between conventions of fiction: the western, noir, pulpy detective novel.

Jackie embodies the insularity of personal trauma, reconciling public and private grief. Her face tells the story of a nation, seeking to comprehend national trauma alongside her symbolic and real family: Nancy, LBJ, Bobby, her own children. Larraín shows Jackie’s vulnerable humanity, not a flawless symbol: her insecurities and uncertainties as she debates the procession, the immensity of emotion as she washes away blood. As Portman tells The Guardian:

She can be brave, and self-interested, and vulnerable, and super-tough, and sensual, and cold, and all of these things at once because that’s how human beings are.

Jacqueline Kennedy highlighted these contradictions of symbolism and grief in an unpublished part of her interview with Theodore H. White, released as part of the Camelot documents, recreated in the film as visceral imagery. 

I saw myself in the mirror; my whole face spattered with blood and hair… I wiped it off with Kleenex. History. I thought no one really wants me there. Then one second later I thought, why did I wash the blood off? I should have left it there, let them see what they’ve done.

Literature may be built upon madwomen stricken with grief. Jackie could easily become a melodramatic caricature or Ophelia, destined to tragically drown. Yet her trauma is grounded in reality. She endures the unimaginable, required to attend the autopsy of the husband and president she loved. Jackie must detach herself from the lifelessness of the human body. In the immediate aftermath, she tells the journalist how beautiful his corpse looked, reflecting on his “most wonderful expression”. In Manchester by the Sea, we similarly confront Patrick’s inability to comprehend his late uncle as a body sitting in a freezer. Through Mica Levi’s haunting soundtrack, we sense the constant disquiet of grief, where everything feels slightly off.

Portman is often underestimated as an actress, placed as girlfriend as Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005), or Jane Foster in Thor (2011). For as much she is placed as a strong woman – as queen, senator and mother, or astrophysicist, her roles remain overshadowed by her male counterparts, destined to be a damsel in distress. Yet as we see through producer Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Portman is able to capture visceral emotion and pathos. Her Oscar victory with Black Swan and nomination with Jackie prove her capabilities. Her Mid-Atlantic accent for Jacqueline Kennedy may take some getting used to, but defines her character.

Jackie is a specifically female narrative. In a heartbreaking scene, Jackie attempts to explain to her children, Caroline and John Jr., their father’s disappearance; struggling to come with the loss of their siblings herself. She tells them he is in Heaven, keeping Patrick company, the child she knew “just long enough to fall in love”. She wants to show the nation the truth of “two heartbroken, fatherless children” in news coverage. Like Arrival, what may first appear to be a typical narrative of genre fiction, becomes a maternal narrative, inseparable from the rest of the film.

Jackie faces the reality the White House is never her own; she has no home. As she tells the journalist, “a First Lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. It’s inevitable”. Jackie grounds her identity in the temporary and ethereal, objects that must move out of the White House, in storage ready for her incumbent to create her own legacy. Like many women, her identity is controlled by the man she married, even after death, unable to forge her own destiny. Though she forms a bond with Nancy, who insists she has her life ahead of her, she knows this is not reality. Her life shall forever be defined by the grief, unable to move fully past it.

Larraín confronts the power of music and memory as Jackie plays the record of the musical Camelot (1960), recontextualised with new meaning through time’s progression, whilst we learn of Jack’s fascination with Arthurian legends as a child. Government becomes revealed as a construct itself: Camelot is mythical. Government is an apparatus, built on policies and amendments. Ideologies become simplified to soundbites and slogans, never in-depth or complex. Sean Spicer stands behind a wall of facts and lies, controlling data filtered out through to press outlets. Donald Trump was built through his brand and the heavy editing of The Apprentice (2004-present).  As Oppenheim explains to Vox, politicians create fairy tales.

Jackie is a fashion symbol: in one of the final scenes, we see her aghast at identical models in a shop window wearing her outfit, reducing the individual to mass-produced commodity. In his desktop documentary Not Another Camelot, Kevin B. Lee contrasts Jackie’s symbolic construction with Melania Trump, one of Trump’s many wives, model, owner of a jewellery line and crusader against cyber bullying, subsuming Jackie’s iconography as her own for Trump’s inauguration. Jackie, as construct, becomes worn as performance.

Although Kennedy’s assassination acts as the inciting incident, it is never the focal point. When Jackie is interviewed by a reporter, she rejects the notion of giving a “moment-by-moment account”. As Angelica Jade Bastién describes in The Outline, we see the “unflinching gore” as Kennedy bleeds out, brain matter leaving his skull. There isn’t the distance of the Zapruder film, but a grounded, subjective “emotional terror”, confronting the viewer to the incident’s unreality. Kennedy is never presented in full, but as a ghostly “aberration haunting Jackie and the film itself”, within the unreliability of recreating the past in memory. In No, reliving the past becomes a cathartic process; using similar techniques to documentary filmmakers like Louis Theroux and Joshua Oppenheim, he allows those present in the original campaign to become a part of its fictional version.

Larraín is grounded in aesthetic, yet never superficial. Neruda is built upon its artificiality, with rear projection motorcycle chases and lens flares. Larraín shot No on a TV broadcast camera from the 80s, framing the viewer within the influence of the media in the election whilst avoiding the superficiality of found footage or digital plug-ins. Using 16mm, Larraín evokes the female instability and vulnerability of Carol (2015), whilst grounding the viewer within the archive, achieving the epistemological and emotional process Jaimie Baron terms the “archive effect”, as the viewer recognises “images of time’s inscription on human bodies and places”.

Kennedy’s assassination will forever be defined by Abraham Zapruder’s home movie, captured as an accident of history, never knowing the significance of the film he would capture, and providing vital evidence to the event’s reality. Jackie’s use of 16mm acknowledges the importance of that 8mm film. Larraín recreates Jackie’s tour of the White House shot for shot, using the same tri-tube camera from No, creating performance of performance. Jackie’s world is a world of images, witnessing the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald broadcast in real time, in mass media frenzy. Scroll down Facebook today, you’ll see a similar frenzy, whilst a news notification on your phone tells you of the next terrorist attack or celebrity death.

Jackie is perhaps most moving as it tackles questions of faith, grief and absence. The past year has seen powerful explorations of faith, like Scorsese’s masterpiece Silence, speaking universal truths. Jackie’s invoking of faith invites comparison to A Quiet Passion, where Emily Dickinson’s faith not only asks questions of meaning, but gender and female identity. Jackie questions what God could take a father away from his children. In her role as mother, female identity is instantly politicised through faith.

The late John Hurt, in one of his final roles, manifests these questions as Father Richard McSorley, tinged with an Irish lilt. McSorley’s philosophical musing is universal, yet carries added resonance as a reflection of Hurt’s own thoughts around mortality in the final year of his life, offering Jackie spiritual guidance through Biblical passages as they walk through Arlington. McSorley is neither fundamentalist preacher nor radical atheist, but a realist with his own doubts around God, his life behind him. McSorley’s words continue to haunt me, and give me comfort in my own life, offering a way to move on from trauma.

There comes a time in man’s search for meaning, when one realizes — there are no answers. When you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization — you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching. I have lived a blessed life. And yet every night when I climb into bed, turn off the lights, and stare into the dark, I wonder… is this all there is? And then, when morning comes, we all wake up and make a pot of coffee. Because we do. You did this morning, and you will again tomorrow.

In sun-tinged shots, we see Jackie’s bond with her children. In the small moments, fragments of images burned within memory, our true life really shows.

You did this morning, and you will again tomorrow.

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