I’ve got an instinct to dismiss late-year biopics as Oscarbate, but Jackie is something more.
In 1963, Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviews Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in her Massachusetts estate for the now-famous article comparing her husband’s administration to King Arthur’s court in Camelot. During the interview, Kennedy re-lives the past week of her life — the president’s assassination and planning for his funeral.
Jackie is an intimate portrait of a woman who isn’t emotionally equipped to handle her situation. Forced to grieve in the media spotlight, the immense pressure reduces Kennedy — this film’s version of her, at least — to little more than pettiness and vanity. It takes the instinct to sympathize with her, both as a respected historical figure and a recent widow, and the distaste for the character on-screen and grinds them against each other.
Kennedy’s main concern is legacy, something that was clearly important to the real-life first lady as well. While in office, she was most famous for her restoration of the White House, the history of which wasn’t given much thought by its residents before the Kennedys arrived. When the film touches on these events, it’s establishing three things at once — her character and priorities, her public persona as an every-day house wife to the most powerful man in the world and the role of television in the administration. Cameras had just begun to role at this point in history, famously contributing to her husband’s victory over Richard Nixon two years earlier. The rapidly expanded news media is a haunting factor throughout the film.
In 1963, the primary conflicts are around how grandiose or private the president’s funeral should be amidst fears that Lee Harvey Oswald was not acting alone. Afterward, Kennedy has a subtly intense conflict with White as she bullies the reporter into recording exclusively her version of events. All of these are conflated with the film’s broken timeline, which sets them parallel to each other.
Emotional decisions are one of the best things to craft plots around because it makes the film intimate and unpredictable. Characters are driven to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t, and the film has to bring us up close and personal so that we understand why. With enough attention, these sorts of decisions can become a feature-length plot with performances and secondary characters built solely around them. Jackie is a fantastic example of this concept followed all the way through, creating a film so private that it makes you feel a little dirty to watch.
Leopold Knopp is a journalism student at the University of North Texas. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.