By Christopher Sharrett.
The title to Pablo Larrain’s film Jackie might be more sensibly called The Last Days of Kennedy; the title is misleading if one is prepared to see a Jacqueline Kennedy biography. I say this especially because the film’s unremitting gloom seems to flow from its chronicle of the events leading up to and following the Kennedy assassination. At least this was my first impression. But the film indeed centers on Jackie (Natalie Portman), although we get only a few moments of her life: her suffering through her husband’s murder (graphically portrayed) and funeral (which she planned, creating images now part of public consciousness), her famous 1961 television special when she escorted the TV audience through a newly-redecorated White House, and the framing device of her conversation with an unidentified journalist (Billy Crudup), actually Theodore H. White, a Kennedy courtier who assisted Jackie in her crafting the myth of Camelot in tribute to her husband, who lived too short a time to give us a very substantial legacy.
The film’s morbidity is extraordinary, from the black frames that punctuate the establishing sequence to the first unnerving chords of Mica Levi’s dissonant score. The sky is permanently overcast, appropriate to the subject matter, yet reminding us a bit much of the myth that after JFK, everything turned into a wasteland. The mise-en-scene captures another, more tangible myth: the early Sixties were more of the Fifties, depressing and filled with conformity, except for the Civil Rights Movement, which is offstage not only for this grand melodrama but to the white America of the day.
This is indeed a story about a woman surviving in a male world, in this case a very enclosed one: the Kennedy clan. In breathy tones, Jackie tells the journalist/us that she was once a journalist as she figures what she will do next. But she is as weirdly censorious as the Kennedy males. While smoking a cigarette, she tells the interviewer “I don’t smoke.” For decades Jackie Kennedy was a mystery woman, protecting her privacy zealously, which often gave the impression, often associated with the rich, that she was aloof and not available to the prying eyes of the rabble. The view of her became so pervasive that she was deemed dismissible when she married the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, known by his peers as “the golden frog,” who never gave a dime to charity. From JFK to this ugly lout? The most generous view held that she needed real security, and Onassis security was better than most. She became “Jackie O,” watched for among the haute monde, yet when she died she was buried next to JFK as she became a Kennedy again, the Onassis years erased as much as possible.
In the last decade or so, a good deal of Jackie Kennedy’s life has become public, including some taped recordings that influence this film’s script. The seamier stuff, like derisive remarks about Martin Luther King, are excluded. What we get is a bit perplexing; is she vacuous, as she seems to be during the White House tour stunt, or is she trying her best to maintain the demanded early-Sixties female poise that would soon be mostly dismantled? She is mainly withdrawn, as she is in the archetypal images of her in her post-assassination bloody pink dress that she refuses to change (“I want them to see what they did to him”). She is deemed unapproachable by the surrounding male entourage, except when she must take her place in a ceremony, like the swearing-in of LBJ where she seems to be in shock. This is just before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) had its impact; until second-wave feminism became a real presence on the American scene, even wealthy women like Jackie faced a dead end, frozen in assigned roles by a masculine culture.
One scene in the film is especially telling. Jackie is walking with an entourage of males through Arlington National Cemetery. It is a rainy, dark day, the most emblematic scene in the film in the representation of doomsday. Jackie breaks away and runs to the base of a hill, with a mansion atop once owned by Robert E. Lee (Arlington was planned as an eye-poke to the Confederacy, reminding the rebels of the devastation they caused). Jackie stakes out the place of her husband’s grave, with its eternal flame. The spot is known to most in colorful books about the Kennedys, where it looks dignified and almost resplendent, almost always photographed in sunlight. We see its origins here, as a woman breaks from the male pack, scraping mud off her shoes, running away, but running toward death. There is nothing in Jackie that spells something other than hopelessness.
Jackie Kennedy seems to want to break through a façade – but how much of it is of her own making? She tells us (this is one of those few films with a female narrator, perhaps an untrustworthy one) that her marriage is a ruin; she and JFK have separate bedrooms. She seems to enjoy her world of high fashion in which she was for a moment a trendsetter. At the end of the film as Jackie is driven away from the White House, she passes by a department store window where men are removing mannequins wearing clothes that could be hers. Is she concerned with the passing of her style, or that she too is a mannequin?
There is very little about the international scene in this film. Bobby Kennedy looms over Jackie, played by Peter Sarsgaard, usually associated with villainous roles. He talks very briefly about how he may have “pushed [JFK] too hard on Cuba.” Until his reemergence in 1968 as a semi-dove, RFK was a vicious Cold Warrior; but the political role of assassinations and the prospect of nuclear war don’t have much place here, and not much said either about Vietnam. Was JFK going to de-escalate that incursion, as his admirers insist? We don’t know. Jackie is aware of certain problems, but she remains mostly a cipher. She is a woman alone, in some desperation, but expecting nothing more than more of the same. In this she might be a true emblem of women at mid-century.
Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University.