“Fame is life, fame is death.”
“I never wanted fame, I just became a Kennedy.” – Jackie
Directed by Pablo Larrain, Jackie is a very intimate look at the wife of President John F. Kennedy in the time immediately after his assassination. The story is troubling to watch, and it challenges our notions of who Mrs. Kennedy was. First of all, we see her in close up after close up as if we’re expected to memorize every wrinkle in her face and every quiver of her lips. These close ups seem to shove us into her personal space and to make us well aware of our own trespassing. For most of the film it felt like we were seeing things we were never supposed to see.
That’s because this is a film, about image and fame specifically. I find the quote above to be a good summation of what this film is about. The film follows Jackie through a few different time periods, though all are only a few days, maybe a few weeks apart. We learn a great deal about her through conversation with three men: A journalist, her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy and a priest.
Each conversation gives us a new angle into Jackie’s head, and the main takeaway is that she has a sense of duty to protect the image of her and of her late husband. It’s unclear at first where her loyalties lie. When we are first introduced to Jacqueline Kennedy, she is not so cheerfully welcoming a reporter (Billy Crudup) into her house for an interview. Almost immediately she tells him that he will only report what she wants him to report. It’s clear that she’s in command of the story, and we get the sense that it is because she is devoted to her husband, her family and to herself. In other words, it’s about family.
But by the end, it is slowly revealed that she feels her sense of duty is in service of the American people. Through her careful arrangements and insistence on marching during the procession, we see that she wants to send a message to America, both the people who loved President Kennedy and the people who wanted him dead. She is promoting an idyllic existence, one that she thinks will be soothing to an American public during this tumultuous time.
Jackie is a complex character, and we see so many of these layers in this story. The first and most important thing we know about Jackie is her commitment to the performance as first lady of the United States. Whereas she is in command during the interview, when we flashback to a television tour of the White House two years earlier, she appears nervous, trying to perform a role written by someone else for her. In the interview after the assassination she is performing a role that she herself has a hand in cultivating. It’s the simple move from actor to director.
Throughout the film we get to see how that ultimate performance is developed. She suffers a great deal and wears her sadness like a cloak so that she might as well have spent the whole film wearing the outfit she ultimately dons during the funeral procession. We bounce around between moments (most of them) in which the former First Lady is surrounded by men trying to help her but very clearly unable to and moments in which she is utterly alone.
We continue to jump around in time between these moments, her interview with the journalist and eventually a conversation she has with a priest. It’s with the priest that she seems to be the most open. They have conversations about God, death and the endless search for answers. The priest tells her that when man realizes there is nothing to be found, he either kills himself or lives, finding some comfort in no longer needing to continue searching. It’s to the priest that Jackie admits to never seeking the fame that she is so smothered by, and it’s to the priest that she claims to have remembered every detail about the assassination despite having told the reporter (and Secret Service agent Clint Hill) that she didn’t remember the moments after the shots were fired.
This entire film tries to draw the line between Jacqueline Kennedy’s performance and her reality, but in doing so it only makes that separation harder to find.
The arc of the film seems to suggest a rebirth for Jackie, from Mrs. Kennedy to Jackie, but the end of the story undercuts this journey, and this is where the performance and reality seem to melt into one. Jackie tells the reporter about Camelot, and this follows up a few moments earlier in the interview in which she has been surprisingly candid, only for her to then tell him that none of those moments will make it into the story. She makes this clear by telling the reporter “I don’t smoke” even as she sucks down one cigarette after another, a perfect albeit familiar cinematic symbol of distress.
So when she discusses Camelot with earnest intensity, it feels like she is finally letting the curtain down. The reporter tells her that he has found his story, the gist of which is that Jacqueline Kennedy has made her mark in history. This seems to satisfy her, and it also appears to cement the legacy which she has been fighting for during the entire film.
Jackie then sits down and edits his notes, editing her own story and listens to him as he dictates it to his boss over the phone. Immediately after, this sort of rebirth is completely undercut when we see her tell the priest that the reporter believed this account of Camelot, despite the lack of truth to the story. The uplifting, empowering ending is further knocked down as we see Jackie standing sadly in the rain while her husband and two children who died during childbirth are lowered into the ground. Is there any better way to declare to the audience “this is not a happy ending” than to show a woman bury half her family in the rain?
This entire sequence seems to suggest that everything about Jackie has been a performance, initially because she thought that’s what people wanted, and ultimately because she decides what people need.
The film ends with her continuing to recount the idea of Camelot while we see a memory of her dancing with John F. Kennedy in a happier moment. I took this ending to suggest that despite the film appearing to let us deep into Jackie’s life, it has decided to help preserve the image she created and wanted to live long after her death.
We hardly see John F. Kennedy in this film, and the first time we get a lengthy shot of his face is when he joins Jacqueline Kennedy during her television tour of the White House. So when we first see him, it’s during a performance for a national audience.
Another thing that fascinates me about this film is the audience’s relationship to Jackie. We’re sympathetic to her of course, but that’s more because of what we already know about her and the trauma she endured. If you take the historical context out of this film, it’s a story about a woman whose husband is murdered, but a husband we don’t much get to see. When the story begins, she is already widowed, and in flashbacks for almost the entire film we barely get to see Jack Kennedy. It’s very much Jackie’s film, and I think the fact that we don’t see much of her right before the assassination allows us to observe more than feel for her. Maybe I’m cold-hearted, but I didn’t feel myself drawn to the character of Jackie played in this movie, at least not right away. If we had seen her have happy moments with her husband before we saw his death, maybe I would have had more of an emotional response, but I don’t think Larrain wanted that relationship between her and the audience. The order in which the story is presented allows us to first see Jackie as this hardened woman who already has her guard up. This is someone who’s been to hell and back (kind of like what she says about Jack, facing the devil’s temptation and then returning).
So we see Jackie as this character who has already been elevated not just by her fame but also by her pain. She is other, she is not like us. So even though we’re let in on these intimate moments in her life, we start by seeing Jackie just like the reporter does. We’re not let in until later, and this is when the separation begins between us and the reporter. I don’t know if this is obvious, it might be, or maybe I’m talking nonsense.
I think what I’m getting at is that Pablo Larrain knows Jackie is an icon, and so it would be pointless to try to humanize her without admitting upfront that she is not like us. She even says that later in the film in response to the reporter asking if it was reckless for her to walk outside with her kids during the funeral (at a time when there could be a gunman in every window or around every corner). So the film starts with her as this thing outside of our own experience and then tries to bring her down to the human level, showing her internal struggle and how that influences the final image she gives off. I’m going to say that again in a new way. We begin with a produced image of Jackie, one produced by grief and horror, and then we end with a new image of Jackie, the one she intended to give off to the world at that time and forever after. In between we see the transition between those two images and the human underneath. The first image was created by a single moment, and the ultimate moment is created and influenced by her entire time in the White House. Not only does she spread the idea of Jack Kennedy’s presidency as akin to Camelot, but she is driven by a clothing store that rolls out mannequins wearing a suit similar to the one she wore during the assassination. The new image is a combination of all of her public personas rolled into one. She can produce a symbol of peace and prosperity even as people gobble up the suit that is linked to the end of that prosperity. It’s all consuming, and it’s all consumed.
The last observation I have is the way this film uses actual footage from the President’s funeral. There are plenty of actual shots of the event spliced in with new shots filmed for the movie. The most iconic moment is when John F. Kennedy Jr. saluted his father’s casket, but that moment is withheld from the film. The only shot of JFK Jr. we see during the procession is one in which he is stuck inside a car behind his mother as she walks. He presses his face up to the glass, staring out at the crowd.
This could mean nothing, but since I’m already in my overly-analytical frame of mind, I have an idea for what it represents. The entire world saw that moment, when JFK Jr. saluted his father, and it lives on even today. Like the Zapruder film, it’s an image seared into our brain. The film, however, chooses only to show JFK Jr. trapped in a car, because in reality he was trapped within that image as much as Jackie or anyone else. That doesn’t sound quite right. Basically, behind that bold image of the salute was a scared and confused little kid just like Jackie was confused and frightened. A salute on its own feels very confident. You salute something because you’re saying something, declaring an allegiance, a devotion, etc. Jackie’s entire term as First Lady and the way she concluded it could be seen as some sort of salute to America. This film just tries to show the reality underneath while still hoping to preserve that tribute.