By William Alexander Yankes
Before any images, a masterly musical composition evokes the disintegration of life. Jackie, a film about Jacqueline Kennedy, wife and widow of the assassinated American president, brings us a perspective never before pursued –hers– and how she lived the sorrow of the personal and most public loss. The music shrouds the film’s funereal emotions while also making room for celebratory glimmers of JFK’s vitality. Based on an original screenplay (Noah Oppenheim) presented to Chilean director Pablo Larraín (“No”, “Neruda”), it constitutes a veritable requiem for a national wound from which neither the United States nor the world have yet completely healed.
The film is a feature that incorporates and re-enacts scenes from a series of archival news clips surrounding tragedy in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963, and from an earlier White House Tour documentary footage hosted by Jackie as First Lady.
Throughout the feature film, the role of Jackie was played magnificently by Natalie Portman. The lens focuses on the emotions and the perspective of the murdered President’s widow—the blood-splattered dress, the shock, the sorrow, the motherly tenderness toward her two small children. It also goes where no camera has gone before, to a private interview of her at the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, where we discover Jackie in her own words. We’re introduced to the private and human drama this woman endured behind the public figure. This is what makes the film endearing. We gain access to the widow in her most intimate moments. But even then, she was always mindful of the image her bearing of private sorrow would leave behind as a moment in history. We are able to experience her strength of character, her clarity of mind rising from unspeakable turmoil and lingering pain. She comes forth to the world truly displaying a profile in courage, the title of her husband’s best-selling work about political leaders.
In this hybrid of a film, where documentary and fiction combine in a non-linear structure, we learn about Jackie’s initiative to select the site of her husband’s and President’s burial ground at Arlington Cemetery and about her decision to have it be a funeral procession, a march, against every advice imposed on her by the newly-sworn Administration for reasons of national security. Her preference prevailed, thus replicating the funeral homage a century earlier, as it was done with the assassinated President Lincoln’s casket. She insisted that it be done her way, the way she wanted the world to remember the closure of her husband’s presidential tenure. In those difficult moments, she became the fulcrum of the Kennedy clan. She unambiguously seized the limelight in that brief shining moment that was Camelot.
Thinking back on the film and the historic persona of Jacqueline Kennedy, it reminds us that in her slender and seemingly fragile but always elegant figure, she was emblematic of fortitude, of a deep-seated instinct for diplomacy and historical vision as she grew into her role as the widowed First Lady while bearing a most Kennedyesque sense of the political in service to humanity.
It is perhaps worth noting that President Kennedy felt like a family member throughout Latin America. Perhaps the affective bond with the charismatic US president was felt stronger abroad than the average US citizen may have felt on American soil. This may be one reason drawn from the Chilean collective unconscious as to why Chilean Pablo Larraín pursued making a film on Kennedy from unique and emotionally poignant perspective.
The historical Jackie’s poise never wavered, even in her role as the sudden widow. This is magnificently captured in the film’s acting. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy soldiers through this tragedy with her trademark style of quiet elegance as the beautiful wife of the beloved youthful President. This film is consistent with the aristocracy of her family line and her husband’s universal visibility. It reaffirms the value of service to society that is portrayed as indelible behind the symbols of by now iconic images of the Kennedy presence. In Jackie, the movie, we’re shown how brilliantly the historical Jackie filled the silence left by her husband’s absence, and how she performed her last duties from the White House with a dignity commensurate to the image President Kennedy created for himself around the world.