When we arrived in Spain for a study abroad trip, the first thing we noticed were all the posters for Natalie Portman in the new film Jackie. Directed by Pablo Larraín, the movie takes place in the harrowing four days between JFK’s assassination and his burial. Though Portman admits that the research to play such an iconic character was daunting, the result is a biopic that focuses on Jackie Kennedy’s side of the struggle and the making of mythical Camelot. Everyone should see it, and here’s why.
Admittedly, the movie is slow to start. The screenplay switches back and forth from the present to the past, from a post-assassination interview with a journalist to various bits and pieces of pre-assassination times. Each of the journalist’s questions hints at a potential fault of Jackie: her overspending on the renovation of the White House, the exclusive parties, the private concerts featuring world-renowned musicians. And in fact, Jackie often shares her true feelings about certain subjects. Though he might cut her off mid-sentence because he thinks his facts more superior to hers, she ultimately wins. Each time, Jackie shows her complete control of the interview by saying, “You won’t publish that.” She might be helpless in her financial situation, but Jackie certainly had and still has a handle on people’s perceptions of her. And she fought for that right.
In fact, Jackie’s control of the whole plot never falters. Surprisingly, there are very few images of the president himself because Larraín wanted Jackie to be the focal point at all times. For once, there is an entire movie written about a strong woman in adverse circumstances—not a side character written in support of her husband. The movie centers on her struggle, her pain, her strength, and her own fame. And she is real, both in the sense that this all actually happened and in the sense that she has emotions. She has breakdowns, she has intelligence, she has cunning. But above all, she has the ability to manipulate the world to her will. She doubts her own ability to make everything go her way, but somehow she manages. She is scared, but that is the beauty of watching such a tragic story unfold from her eyes. The best part of this film, to me, was the friendship between Jackie and her friend/secretary Nancy. Though Robert Kennedy is sometimes a clear emotional help to Jackie in the days following the assassination, Nancy helps Jackie with the kids and reminds her to remain a strong woman.
Roger Ebert’s review of the film separates the interview part of the film (which he calls subpar) from the plot before, during, and after the assassination (which he highly praises). For me, however, the interview scene is necessary for showing how women—especially women in power—feel the need to recreate themselves in a mythic sense. As a woman myself (sorry, Mr. Ebert), I feel that is necessary and essential to understanding half of Jackie’s struggle immediately following Jack’s murder. Sure, it might not be as well done as some other retrospective movies, but I think that conversation helps the whole film make more sense. Ebert almost flippantly says that the film would once be treated as a “woman’s movie,” as if that were a bad thing. He concludes by saying, “Ironic that Jackie’s story here is mainly one of a woman trying to imagine her own experience on her own terms, only to be told by various parties, mainly male, that she’s wrong, or that it’s not enough.” Somehow, I do not buy that. To a female audience, this movie is groundbreaking. It speaks of lost love, fidelity, friendship, and resilience.
But most of all, it tells history from a woman’s perspective. And although different than the story we know, it is just as important to know. Jackie brings the attention to power issues that not even one of the most influential women in history could solve. Mr. Ebert sees this as a failure of the film, but I see it as an illustration of how horribly things can end up if men continue to exert control over the female population (sound familiar?). Jackie is a timely lesson that shows just how important the history of female figures is, and why it is imperative that we do not forget that.