Jackie and the Art of the Image

Natalie Portman stars as America’s most carefully crafted First Lady.

(Fox Searchlight)

I first learned about Jaqueline “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis as a child. I stumbled upon a biography book about her in my parents’ bookcase. I was initially drawn to it not so much because of the words (it was a really thick book and I was pretty young) but because of the pictures. In the middle of the book were several pages of black-and-white and color photographs of Jackie, Jack and their beautiful, picture-perfect family. Though they appeared like just another normal – albeit rich, white and political – family, little did I know that many of these moments were likely, purposefully staged.

The carefully crafted image of the Kennedy family has been written about and analyzed for decades. John “Jack” F. Kennedy was, after all, the first president to come into power as broadcast television was rapidly evolving. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to utilize the medium and his presidency to its full capacity. In Pablo Larrain’s reimagined biopic Jackie, we catch a glimpse of what Jackie’s life may have been like in the days after her husband’s untimely death – an emotional yet graceful moment in time, despite the devastating tragedy that precipitated it.

In today’s social media age, celebrities are expected to reveal their private lives to their eager followers. Kim Kardashian built an empire out of the overshare (though she has recently started to alter her business model) and America’s president-elect has foregone formal press conferences for random tweets. In the 1960s, however, public figures didn’t have the instant gratification and accessibility of mobile phones and the internet. Celebrity and image were concocted through more formal media formats such as photography, print news and broadcast television.

(Fox Searchlight)

Enter Jacqueline Kennedy, an expert brand manager ahead of her time. In Jackie, Natalie Portman portrays her as a poised and pained First Lady coming to grips with the reality of the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Having ascended to power a mere two years prior, she must now learn how to (gracefully) let all of her presidential (wife) dreams go.

Portman’s rendition of Jackie is quite good – she nails the breathy voice, the look, the style. She seems to have the same stature as the real Jackie. But a shard of her performance feels a tad too rehearsed, as if Portman is choreographing each move exactly the way Jackie might have done it. Some might call it too calculated, overacting. Some might call it meta: a perceived reality of Jackie’s perceived reality. It works, actually.

The film tells us that most of what we know or have seen of Jackie is what she would have wanted us to see: her walk out of Air Force One wearing her blood-stained clothes with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) at her side; her elaborately planned funeral march beginning with her two children beside her; and her performative public persona. Image building and brand management are catchy PR buzzwords, but only the really savvy public figures (and their teams) know how to use this to their advantage. Barack and Michelle Obama are social media superstars. Joe Biden is a meme machine. We’ll have to see what the future holds for the next White House residents.

In Jackie’s interview with the journalist (Billy Crudup), there are moments where we see glimpses of what she might have been like behind-the-scenes: a smart, hyperaware woman with a sense of duty to her family’s legacy in the White House. She has a flair for dramatic speech, smokes cigarettes, and drinks vodka. But that’s the Jackie very few get to see (like Nancy Tuckerman, played by Greta Gerwig). She spends much of her time carefully planning what to do depending on who the audience is. In the case of the reporter, she blurts out the truth and smokes cigarettes incessantly, only later to remind him that, for the purposes of the interview, she “doesn’t smoke.”

Larrain boldly recreates the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). It’s a famous scene that begins with the smiling faces of the First Couple driving down a long street in Dallas, Texas. Beaming fans wave back at them and the Secret Service is not far behind. Then we hear a gunshot, then another, and perhaps another. The President falls over onto his wife. Chaos ensues. A Secret Service agent jumps onto the car from behind. Jackie is horrified at the sight of her husband’s obliterated head. It’s bloody and shocking – a completely raw and unedited moment, forever ingrained in American history, that Jackie could have never dreamed of having to cover up.

(Fox Searchlight)

In his account of that fateful day, Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who jumped onto the car, said that once the car arrived at Parkland Hospital, Jackie did not want to let go of her husband’s body. She did not want the people to see the condition he was in. Hill took his jacket off to cover his body and she eventually let go. It’s a small moment that reflects a lot about Jackie’s natural instinct to protect her husband’s image – her image. It was the first of many steps she would take to protect the legacy of his presidency.

Following a recent screening of Jackie for the Variety and AARP Movies for Grownups Screening Series, Larrain said, “I don’t think we’ll really know who the real Jackie was and what was going on with her and her husband.” The film is his attempt at humanizing her story and seeking to understand her a bit more. There are countless biographies, movies and television shows that have attempted to do this. Larrain’s film is not so much a biopic than it is a captivating, dramatic retelling that might even fare well on the stage. We’ll never really know if this or any other portrayals are accurate. There’s no cache of old Instagram or Twitter feeds or a server full of emails or even old Xanga posts that might reveal a bit more that the photos and videos we’ve already seen. We’ll simply have to settle for the meticulously calculated, perfectly positioned version of the Kennedy brand – a.k.a. Camelot – and the woman behind it all.

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