John F. Kennedy was President of the United States for two years, ten months, and two days. That’s not a very long time as far as presidents are concerned. Most of the big accomplishments we associate with the sixties weren’t really achieved during his Presidency. Civil Rights legislation was passed under Johnson. Man landed on the moon under Nixon. Tricky Dick’s reputation as President is understandably soured by the illegal activities taken during his administration, and in Johnson’s case, there is a stark contrast between his legislative legacy and the way he is remembered as a person. In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, for example, Liev Schreiber plays him as a cooky Texan who still uses the n-word and shits with the door open. Kennedy, meanwhile, is remembered as an icon.
Along comes Jackie, the best American movie of the year. Natalie Portman stars as the legendary first lady in the days following Jack Kennedy’s assassination in a movie that suggests maybe Jack’s wife had a lot to do with the way we remember the 35th President.
(What does it mean that the best American movie of the year was not directed by an America, but by Chilean director Pablo Larraín? I honestly don’t know, but thought it was worth mentioning.)
Jackie Kennedy is an icon of elegance and poise in her own right. While her husband was in office, she hosted a Emmy-winning television tour of the White House in which she mostly talked about the furniture and the decorative changes she made to the place. The world was an even more rigid place for women back in the sixties. It was assumed the first lady’s role didn’t extend beyond making the White House look nice, and yet, Jackie was criticized for spending too much money redecorating, and throwing lavish parties with famous musicians performing and lots of champagne. These were all frivolities. Women’s things. Even her husband joked that she going to bankrupt the government.
Even to this day, there are people who don’t understand that these things matter. The feminine, the seemingly superficial, it can speak volumes. It can be more powerful than anything you do. Jackie Kennedy, her insistence on referring to her husband’s presidency as “Camelot” (based on his favorite musical), is what preserved his legacy. Those are the things that turned him, and her, into a legend. Jackie understood -perhaps to an oppressive extend- that appearances matter. When you are a woman growing up at the time she did, you understand that a nice Chanel suit can be your best political tool. When said suit is covered in your recently assassinated husband’s blood, that tool can become a weapon. These images stay in our minds, they send messages. Jackie, the movie, understands this too. It reminded me, at times, of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a very different but equally great movie about the value of beautiful things in a fragile civilization.
I’m afraid we’re about to learn, in the next four years, that American democracy might be one of those very fragile civilizations. I wonder if it’s different in a place like Great Britain. I wonder if political upheaval or a vote to leave the European Union feels counterbalanced by the centuries-long stability of the monarchy. No matter what happens, I imagine, the British will know the royals will still be there. There is no royalty in America. There is no institution that has endured for millennia. The Kennedy’s have been called American royalty, though. I think it has to do with Jackie understanding the Presidency to be a delicate position. It needs to be perceived as a rock-solid pillar in the Nation, because it can so easily be disrupted. By a bullet in the head, for example.
These themes are what make Jackie a good movie. What makes it great is the fact that it doesn’t restrict the thematics to the script. It’s not a movie that just talks about its themes, it’s a movie that becomes them. Jackie Kennedy is a woman obsessed with appearances, with putting up a specific persona even on the face of extreme pressure and tragedy. The movie is obsessed with appearances, too. It is ready to confront us with the artifice not just of Jackie the character, but of Jackie the movie. There are moments, for example, in which Larraín inserts Natalie Portman into stock footage of the time, and then there are little moments in which the footage shows the real Jackie. It’s not close-ups or anything, but it’s clear enough to recognize the woman walking in front of you is not Natalie Portman. It’s a little reminder that you’re not watching the real thing.
Not that you need a lot of that. Portman’s stylized performance is a constant reminder that you’re watching an actor act. There will be people who find her work as Jackie to be too excessive, too superficial, too focused on putting on a voice and a wig. To me, it’s an explicit attempt at putting a barrier of artifice around a performance. Portman is only a few degrees away from a drag performer, beautifully slipping into moments of camp such as when Jackie, cigarette in hand, informs a journalist that she doesn’t smoke. People sometimes criticize Portman for being too cold, too elegant, too distant as an actress. But Jackie, as well as her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan, suggest she isn’t afraid -and is at her best- when she is willing to forget naturalism and goes for the silly, the ridiculous, the grand, the artificial.
Portman is putting on a performance, but so was the real Jackie. It doesn’t make the immense loss she experienced any less real. Despite taking place at an emotionally draining moment in the woman’s life, the movie insists in detaching us from the raw emotion of the situation. There are scenes of immense grief, there is a close-up of Jackie crying her eyes out, but they are detached, observant, distant. The score does the same thing. The magnificent Mica Levi is quickly becoming the best composer in the business, with a deflating score that is almost silly at times. It is as confrontational as it gets, and it works beautifully to jolt you out of becoming too involved in the drama.
Keeping your distance is important. This is one of the most careful and rewarding explorations of America’s relationship with the people who lead them. It’s a movie that asks us to think of elegance and crassness. Of the importance of appearances for all sort of things. The way you look, the way you walk, the way you mourn. Caring about superficialities might seem trivial, but it’s anything but. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jackie, a serious film with the edge to remind you that it’s just a movie, was rejected by general audiences. It is not what we usually associate with prestige drama, even if its premise makes it sound like your typical Oscar bait. I, for one, think it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.
Grade: 9 out of 10