“I don’t smoke” says the recently widowed Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), soon after stubbing out one cigarette and shortly before lighting another.
It’s 1963 – a few days after her husband JFK’s assassination during a motorcade in Dallas – and Jackie, his long suffering wife, is being interviewed by a reporter for Life Magazine (Billy Crudup) while surviving on the twin stimuli of nicotine and myth-making.
Even with JFK’s continued reputation it can be hard to imagine from our vantage point in the 21st century just how shattering his death was. He was seen as being at the forefront of modernity, a break with the past and the hope for the future.
The story of his assassination is told through flashbacks, a recreation of the famous black and white White House tour that Jackie did, and the memories she recounts to the journalist. And it’s only at the very end that we see the true brutality of his death as she cradles his smashed up head in her lap as the car speeds ahead.
After a high profile death, life for all the other participants moves on quickly and Vice President Lyndon B Johnson has taken the presidential Oath of Office before they have even flown JFK’s body home. Unsurprisingly Jackie already feels her husband and his memory have been abandoned and it’s up to her to get the truth – by which she means her version of the truth – out there, because what people are told to feel now will be his legacy for generations. JFK was president for under three years, barely long enough to even be remembered, as she well knows: “for Royalty you need tradition, and for tradition you need time”.
For Jackie, creating her husband’s legacy is paramount. “When something’s written down does that make it true?” she asks, answering her own question by insisting on editorial control over the finished interview. Of course her most interesting and also most brutally honest answers cannot be published.
Jackie has two voices – her public voice (quietly spoken, girlish, ironically breathily Monroe-esque) and her private voice (louder, harsher, more self-assured, more prickly). We see the former in the black and white recreation of the film Jackie made giving a tour of the White House, showing off the beautiful furniture and fabrics she’s brought in. Her private voice – as chilly as the Hyannis Port house she is staying in – dominates her interview with the Life journalist where Portman navigates Jackie’s mixing of truth and pretend truth so well.
As she balances her private grief with her public poise, Jackie pretty much creates the myth of Camelot and its related Arthurian imagery. Camelot was JFK’s favourite musical, and Jackie quotes directly from it to ensure not just that it becomes his legacy but that it can’t become anyone else’s: “Don’t let it be forgot that for one brief shining moment there was a Camelot”.
While managing JFK’s legacy like a Russian cold war propaganda machine, she simultaneously confides in different trusted people with the unvarnished truth – to Bobby Kennedy, about the infamous moment where her husband was lying with her head in her lap, his brains spilling into her hands, she recounts brutally “I tried to hold his head together.” To Nancy her assistant she pointedly tells her she is no longer First Lady and can be addressed simply by her name. With her priest (John Hurt in his last role), she cries over her husband’s constant infidelities and the deaths of her children. And with the Life journalist, so many things that would shock and give context to the world at large but which she states can’t be used in print.
Jackie continually highlights the similarities between JFK and Abraham Lincoln – both were at the forefront of the civil rights movements (Lincoln abolished slavery), both were assassinated. The planning for his funeral, with its Lincoln-esque parallels, is a recurrent theme.
Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) is a constant presence beside Jackie in the days after his brother’s assassination. He’s wracked by “what ifs” – what could have been achieved with civil rights, the space programme, and Vietnam if JFK had lived. And while Jackie begins to manage the flow of information about her husband to the outside world, Bobby manages what she herself is allowed to know – when Lee Oswald is killed he switches off the TV and orders everyone there not to tell her the news.
For Jackie during the immediate aftermath she is both protected and in danger. The world is in a state of flux, and she is told by a White House staffer “Take the children and disappear. The world’s gone mad. Build a fortress in Boston and never look back”. (I remember my mum telling me she really thought the assassination heralded the end of the world. Although to be fair she’d missed the previously announced end of the world, a year earlier with the Cuban Missile Crisis, due to illness. Knowing my mother she probably just didn’t want to be left out).
Jackie loves beautiful things and it’s impossible to think of her or Portman’s portrayal without reference to those iconic outfits – the little suits, sixties dresses, boxy jackets and pillbox hats. And of course the famous pink suit and hat she wears to Dallas, and which she is still wearing, spattered with her husband’s blood, when she touches down back in Washington later. Beauty is vital to her, in her clothes, her furniture, her surroundings. It keeps her feeling safe while paradoxically giving her detractors a way in to criticise her for frivolity and extravagance.
Natalie Portman is mesmerising as Jackie and the accolades and awards that have come her way are well-deserved. But the film is very, very slow-moving. It feels very stagey, like a play. It’s only 1 hour and 40 minutes but to be honest I felt like I was living these few days in real time. I may still be there, in which case please rescue me.
Billy Crudup as the unnamed Life journalist spars with Jackie and while he sympathises with her he doesn’t give her an easy ride. Though he is, finally, glowing in his suming up of her own legacy: “decades from now people will remember your dignity… They’ll remember you” he tells her. Greta Gerwig is warmly protective as her assistant and friend Nancy, always reminding her to smile. John Hurt plays her priest and he’s a calming presence with great foresight, though with an Irish-American accent that has more comebacks than John Travolta.
It’s strange seeing JFK (Caspar Phillipson) reduced to a minor role in the story of his death. For once the woman in the background is centre stage with the most powerful and popular man in the world a near-silent bit part player while his life and death is managed around him.
The music is extraordinary, what sounds initially like relaxing strings but very soon becomes discordantly disruptive. There is a lot of symbolism which is either explained too much or not enough. Even at the very end, Jackie is driven past a high-end store and sees beautifully dressed mannequins being carried around – literally silent models with no voice and no agency.
And what of Jackie? She is trying to establish her husband’s legacy while her own position in the world is wobbly. When a president ceases to be president they are still called President but his wife is no longer First Lady. It’s a question that is just touched on during this film but what on earth does a widowed First Lady do in the future?
Because of their lack of power, women are frequently the behind-the-scenes king-makers in life and in death. Creating a legacy is often an artful construct – albeit from the building blocks of real achievements. Because being successful, creating and instigating policies that help millions, embodying hope and progression, often isn’t enough on its own.