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The Unsatisfying Mythology of ‘Jackie’

The role of a first lady is a performance in itself. Pablo Larraín’s disappointing Jacqueline Kennedy biopic tries but ultimately fails to reconcile the person with the persona.

(Fox Searchlight)
(Fox Searchlight)

She’s gone down as a master of self-preservation through public image. But in the early moments of A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy looks shook. No one had ever done what she, director Franklin J. Schaffner, and CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood were about to do: open the doors of the White House to a worldwide television audience. It was a lifestyle advertisement in the guise of a museum tour — the birth of a genre that stretches, perhaps unceremoniously, to MTV Cribs. Vanity Fair would later suggest that Mrs. Kennedy “assumed the role of the nation’s most exalted housekeeper, connoisseur, and scavenger of fine and historic furnishings.” A housekeeper perhaps, but also a homemaker: one whose building materials were our national history.

A Tour of the White House helped render the White House into the Camelot of American myth. Eighty million people tuned in, and it was later syndicated across 50 countries. It’s a curious thing to watch now, in late 2016, amid a transition between two very different varieties of presidential household and, in particular, two wildly different types of first lady. We’ve already begun to understand Michelle Obama and Melania Trump’s differences as a matter of style, taking for granted that either woman should have any style, and that it might be loaded with broader meaning.

Mrs. Kennedy is to thank for that. Does any of it matter now? Questions of style and image seem crass in context — nevermind that “normalization,” as we’re currently calling it, is largely a matter of overlooking what’s at stake in a politician’s public image. Mrs. Kennedy’s White House tour aired on Valentine’s Day 1962, less than two weeks after the U.S. announced an expanded, permanent embargo against Cuba. Somehow, this lush tour of high-toned Americana feels consummate with that history — and Mrs. Kennedy knew it. The cultural duty of the first lady is easy to write off as politically peripheral. Hillary Clinton famously did so. Not so, Jackie Kennedy.

America is a style. We remember the tour for how coolly Jackie breezes through otherwise flat accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s trinkets and chairs, walking and talking with that cosmopolitan grace and authoritative ease she’s known for. We may not remember that before the fixed, fashionable persona of Jackie Kennedy slides into place, the woman on the screen pivots through the heavily furnished rooms and wide, empty halls of the White House like a mannequin being posed and repurposed for a new display. And we may not remember wondering what it’s all supposed to mean. This being Camelot, we’re discouraged from remembering things as they were. Instead, we’re to remember them as Mrs. Kennedy and others wanted them to seem.

Mrs. Kennedy was notoriously private: all the better to be sculpted into lore, apparently. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the details of her life — the 300 Oleg Cassini outfits, the celebrity friendships, the shade thrown at people like Martin Luther King Jr. (whom she called “a phony”) — as they’ve leaked out over the years, nibbling at every minor nuance or detail like it was a full meal. For an actress, on paper, the role couldn’t be meatier. There’s a performance within a performance and historical pageantry and tragedy and that accent. Norman Mailer once called her a myth, a legend, an archetype, and “virtually a demiurge.” How do you make a movie out of that? I still don’t know, but Jackie, the highly anticipated new film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, is at least an attempt.

(Fox Searchlight)
(Fox Searchlight)

Jackie is concerned not only with Mrs. Kennedy as myth but also as performer and myth-maker. “First lady” is a role — and Larraín’s movie, which largely disappoints, is at its best when it conveys this idea literally, as in a meticulous reconstruction of the eight-hour Tour taping that anchors the movie. Here, Larraín revels in the slippery space between who Jackie Kennedy was and the image she projected. You can see Mrs. Kennedy’s inflections and poise, studiously imitated by Natalie Portman, being worked out backstage before taping. “Welcome to the White House,” she says quietly in one tone, before repeating it in another. Throughout the movie, but especially in these scattered moments, Portman’s face thinks aloud, visibly contemplating every gesture Jackie makes before she makes it, and speaking as if on tape delay. It’s like she’s spell-checking and typesetting the words in her head before carefully uttering them aloud.

It all proposes a theory of Jackie Kennedy as a genius of publicity. Jackie’s main bit of action is the birth of the Camelot myth itself, during her interview with journalist Theodore H. White less than a week after JFK’s death. This is an infamous interview: Jackie was so hands-on about her husband’s legacy that she famously doctored White’s copy before he filed to his editors at Life magazine, forcing through the Camelot idea in the published piece. This is unfortunately too little of the movie, which buries its key ideas in a morass of fussy style, a distracting cocktail of slow zooms and structural gambits that add up to less than they should. We see Jackie’s recollections of the previous week — the assassination, the funeral, the preponderance of practical details — play out as she describes them, and the Hyannis Port interview constantly gives way to other moments and conversations. Add to all of that the random glimpses of the taping of A Tour of the White House about a year and a half before JFK’s death and Jackie begins to feel purposefully all over the place, sifting through its multiple timelines prismatically and unpredictably.

(Fox Searchlight)
(Fox Searchlight)

To its credit, the movie’s logic is psychological, not historical, which reminds us that the essential concern here is who Jackie is. That might explain how it feels true to her spirit even as it also seems to reduce her to a pile of vividly manic moments: stomping in heels through a wet Arlington National Cemetery or lolling drunkenly through her White House suite as she blasts “Finale Ultimo,” the “one brief shining moment” song, from the musical Camelot. You can sniff Portman’s Oscar reel from a nautical mile out. In a film about performance, that’s no flaw. This, though, is simply a case of overacting. (“It’s not subtle, right?” Peter Sarsgaard, who stars as Bobby Kennedy, has said.) On Air Force One after the assassination, she stumbles and stutters around like a shell-shocked soldier, inquiring after the caliber of bullet that struck her husband and recommending bagpipers for the funeral. She’s channelling the shock of a woman whose husband was just killed, of course. But the real revelation of the scene is that you realize she’s merely kicking into first lady mode. A first lady has a practical purpose after the death of her spouse: ushering in the new president. Clearing out the house. Her husband was dead, there was brain matter on her skirt, but the wheels of the republic had to grind on, and so did Jackie’s pursuit of the right image to relay it all: Should she change into clean clothes to face the public, or remain covered in her husband’s blood?

Those are practically questions out of a horror film — and so is the shooting itself, which gets hinted at throughout the movie until, finally, we relive it up close, with Larraín’s camera lingering artfully over the carnage. The outright gore is not a selling point. But there’s something to the movie’s moody gothicism, to the way the images and sound impose themselves on Jackie’s world with creepy, suffocating symmetry and atonality. (Mica Levi, best known for her work on Under the Skin, wrote the music.) The deliberate aesthetic suggests, in one sense, that first ladyship is its own horror, entailing a political sacrifice of self to country, even in times of mourning, but without the power to show for it. In another, more cynical sense, Jackie herself is the freak show, a woman whose stern control over her image belied less a sense of well-tailored privacy than of political cunning. A Christopher Hitchens headline once meanly dubbed her the “widow of opportunity,” and there’s some of that in Jackie’s finest moments too. The White interview, in particular, and Mrs. Kennedy’s cruelly playful habit of declaring things off the record after openly discussing them, tinge the movie with a wryness that’s more novel than the mournful violence, but ultimately inseparable from it.

These two ends never quite meet. Larraín gets in his film’s way. It’s a shortcoming of the movie that so much of Jackie’s inner life gets reduced to melodramatic abstraction: shouts, glares, moments of shock. Conversations and ideas get reduced to their climaxes and ready takeaways — a result of the film’s angular, disruptive structure. It’s a film that tries to give off the impression of understanding the difference between what’s at the surface and what roils underneath. What resonates most strongly, however, is Jackie’s utter impenetrability. Larraín’s movie tries to get to the essence of who she is, yet she remains as inscrutable as ever.