‘Jackie’ profiles grace under fire

“Jackie” (2016). Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Caspar Phillipson, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant, Sunnie Pelant, Aiden Weinberg, Brody Weinberg, Georgie Glen, Gaspard Koenig, Craig Sechler, Rebecca Compton, Vivienne Vernes. Director: Pablo Larraín. Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim. Web site. Trailer.

How would we cope when tragedy strikes? Would we rise to the occasion or fall apart? What would our priorities be in handling it? And would we allow ourselves to be overcome by the circumstances, getting caught up in rhetorical ruminations about why events have unfolded as they have? Those are among the questions faced by a high-profile public figure wrestling with unspeakable grief in the audacious new biopic, “Jackie.”

November 22, 1963 is a date most of us will never forget, even all these many years later. The nation and the world were sent into a collective shock with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) while his motorcade was traveling through the crowded streets of downtown Dallas, Texas. Many of us felt the pain of this tragedy deeply, so much so that it became personal. But no one was more devastated than his wife, Jackie (Natalie Portman), who was sitting beside him when the fatal gunshots rang out, her now-infamous pink designer suit spattered with the blood of her husband.

Jackie’s life changed in countless ways in an instant, and this newly released biopic attempts to examine the myriad conflicted feelings she was experiencing at the time. In many ways, the film is more of a psychological exploration of a turbulent time in her life than a straightforward recounting of her personal history.

The picture opens a week after the President’s storied funeral, an event whose images have become indelibly seared in our memories (especially for those of us of a certain age). Jackie is in seclusion at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, attempting to sort out what’s next for her and her children, Caroline (Sunnie Pelant) and John Jr. (Aiden Weinberg, Brody Weinberg). In light of what just happened, she seeks the shelter that isolation provides. But, with rampant speculation swirling about what she must be thinking, her firsthand view of the tragic events and how posterity would view the late President’s legacy, she’s compelled to speak out, to let the public know her thoughts and feelings. And so she invites a journalist (Billy Crudup) to visit her at the compound so she can tell her side of the story.

The grace and elegance of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) became known around the world, as depicted in director Pablo Larraín’s new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Through Jackie’s conversations with the journalist – a writer modeled after LIFE magazine scribe Theodore H. White, who met with Jackie at Hyannis Port in the wake of JFK’s assassination – viewers are let in on the most intimate thoughts of the widowed First Lady. Jackie and the journalist touch on a wide array of subjects, ranging from her personal feelings to her concerns for how history would view her husband’s abbreviated presidency, a term in office that lasted a mere two years and nine months, far short of the eight years that many believed he ultimately would have served.

Intercut with these conversations is a series of flashbacks, beginning with Jackie’s televised 1962 tour of the White House after its extensive restoration, a sequence designed to show the poise and grace of the First Lady, qualities that would later come to serve her well when providing a source of inspiration and solace to a grieving public. Flashbacks of the fateful day in Dallas follow, covering everything from the shooting to the swearing in of incoming President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) to Jackie’s lonely return to the White House. These depictions are followed by a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the planning of the President’s funeral, a grand public memorial patterned after that of another fallen leader, Abraham Lincoln, an event that Jackie researched thoroughly while under the pressure of a significantly compressed time frame.

On their arrival in Dallas on that fateful day in November 1963, President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson, left) and First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) greet a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers in the new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by William Gray, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Public events aside, Jackie also had much to contend with personally; after all, her husband had just been brutally murdered, and she needed to sort out her emotions, largely on her own and under an umbrella of quiet desperation. But, if that weren’t enough, she also had the unenviable tasks of explaining to her children what had happened to their father and hastily having to prepare to move out of the White House (and on to an uncertain future) to make way for the new President.

Fortunately, she had remarkable support from her longtime friend and confidante Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). However, even their ample compassion and encouragement weren’t enough to help Jackie resolve her many emotional and spiritual questions, the kinds of issues that only one skilled in guidance and counseling could offer. That’s where Jackie’s meetings with a priest (John Hurt) proved invaluable. Views of those intimate talks are thus woven into the narrative, intercut among the conversations with the journalist and the flashbacks. These dialogues are quite engaging in that they don’t dissolve into spoutings of empty platitudes. Jackie speaks pragmatically, uninhibited in candidly expressing herself and freely touching on everything from her husband’s infidelity to the horror of his killing to her love and devotion for him in spite of everything.

Incoming President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch, center) is sworn into office as successor to assassinated President John F. Kennedy as incoming First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant, left) and widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) look on in “Jackie.” Photo by Bruno Calvo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Taken together, the film paints a portrait of a complicated individual, an enigmatic, larger-than-life public figure who also happened to be a real person with genuine human thoughts, feelings and emotions. We witness the strength she demonstrated publicly during the solemn yet highly visible events in the aftermath of her husband’s death, as well as the private vulnerability she struggled with in her personal seclusion. We thus come to see Jackie as a complete person, one not that very different from the rest of us, in her attempt to hold everything together under phenomenally extraordinary circumstances.

Like many of us who lived through that tragic period, Jackie desperately sought to understand why events played out as they did. Having been raised a devout Roman Catholic, she placed considerable faith in her religion and its teachings. But, given everything she endured during the fateful days of November 1963, not to mention the frustrations, trials and tribulations she experienced prior to that (such as the loss of two children and her husband’s less-than-veiled dalliances), she wondered how a supposedly loving God could allow such incidents to occur.

Her faith in her fellow countrymen was tested in the wake of JFK’s death, too. The President made his trip to Texas in part to help shore up his support in the state with the 1964 election looming, But Texas was unfriendly territory in many ways, too. Some of his progressive policies were vehemently opposed, with some detractors even going so far as to create “Wanted” signs with Kennedy’s image emblazoned upon them. She wondered how this could be in a country that supposedly adhered to the notion of everyone being created equal with liberty and justice for all.

Upon arriving back in Washington, widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) is joined by her grieving brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, left), in director Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

What’s more, as noted earlier, Jackie was also concerned with how posterity would view her husband’s time in office. She saw the tremendous potential JFK possessed as a leader, one who was capable of accomplishing great things but who barely had an opportunity to scratch the surface of what he hoped to achieve. Would the public remember him for his civil rights initiatives and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, or would his legacy be characterized by events like the Bay of Pigs incident?

In short, Jackie struggled with trying to understand why she was burdened by all this, as well as how she was supposed to respond to it. And that must have been devastatingly difficult; after all, these events affected her personally, not just by extension as a constituent. In planning the funeral, for example, her thoughts regarding the staging of a grand memorial vacillated between seeing it as a fitting tribute to a fallen leader and something indulgent that she was doing for the benefit of her own emotional needs. Under circumstances like this, one could argue that it’s entirely feasible to legitimately view the grandeur of that event from either of those perspectives. But what was it really?

In situations like this, our perceptions are colored by our beliefs, which are ultimately responsible for the manifestation of the events as they unfold. That’s the essence of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize (and subsequently interpret) the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, as implausible as it might be to examine circumstances such as these from a philosophical standpoint, the principle nevertheless validly applies here just as much as it would with any other materialization.

Jackie’s role in the manifestation of this very public drama was pivotal. As devastated as she was personally, as the now-widowed First Lady, she also realized she needed to serve as a symbol of public strength to a grieving nation. She poured her energy into the creation of events that allowed her fellow Americans, as well as the citizens of the world, to adequately express their despair and to suitably show their appreciation and gratitude to a leader whose time at the helm was cut short. In doing so, she made it possible to realize the manifestation of a tribute befitting someone of presidential stature, an event that went a long way toward helping to frame the legacy for JFK that she hoped to cultivate.

Jackie also assumed the role of a pillar of strength in her personal dealings. She did what she could, for instance, to reciprocate the support her brother-in-law Bobby showed her (after all, he had just lost his brother and was grieving himself at the same time he was trying to console her). And then there were the children, both of whom were quite young at the time; she needed to break the news of their father’s death to them tactfully but in a way that they would understand what had happened. She even tried to preserve as much of a sense of normality as possible, as evidenced by the party she hosted for John Jr.’s birthday, which fell in the middle of the tragic events.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) presides over her late husband’s casket in preparation for transport to the Capitol rotunda in “Jackie.” Photo by Bruno Calvo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

At the same time Jackie was trying to be the face of courage for the nation, she also took symbolic steps to make her personal feelings known publicly. When Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office, for example, she attended the ceremony aboard Air Force One wearing the same blood-stained outfit that she wore at the time of her husband’s shooting. Despite encouragement from others to change her clothes for an event that was certain to be documented photographically, Jackie refused. She wanted those who openly wished ill will toward JFK to clearly see the quiet anger and the personally devastating fallout that emerged from the violent act that took him down. Some may have seen this purely as an act aimed at generating sympathy, but Jackie saw it differently. She knew what she was doing, firm in her beliefs that her actions would send a message that would significantly shape public perceptions.

Still, despite Jackie’s admirable responses to all of these challenges, the underlying question that kept arising through them was trying to understand the meaning of it all. Jackie certainly did her best to look inward and find the answers – only to find that they were elusive. Those sentiments were even echoed back to her by the priest, who told Jackie during one of their conversations that “There comes a time in man’s search for meaning when one realizes that there are no answers.”

In light of that, then, what is one to do under such conditions? From a conscious creation standpoint, this is where learning to have faith in our creations becomes vitally important. Since our manifestations mirror our beliefs, then the materializations that arise from them originate from us. That, in turn, means that there’s something that comes out of them that we’re meant to learn or experience, even if we can’t fully appreciate the essence of the creation at the time of its appearance. Indeed, Jackie probably never heard of conscious creation, but, through her acts and deeds during those difficult days, we can see the impact she and her beliefs had at the time (and subsequently) through what they manifested. Even in the midst of her profound personal grief, she still served as a source of strength and inspiration to those who witnessed her efforts and gestures at that time.

Given Jackie’s circumstances, audiences may not view some of the priest’s advice as especially compassionate or even appropriate. However, just as Jackie tried to reassure her kids that everything would be alright, the priest tried to do the same for her, gently nudging her to recognize that, despite the recent tragedy, she still had much of her life ahead of her, that she could start anew and reinvent herself. But, in coming back, she would have to take things one step at a time, living in the moment as she moved forward into the future.

When widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) seeks solace over her loss, she confers with a priest (John Hurt, left) for comfort and guidance in the new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

That’s a cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process, the notion that the point of power is in the present moment. And, to a great degree, Jackie grasped this idea in her own way, especially when looking back upon her days in the White House with Jack. During her conversations with the journalist, Jackie speaks fondly of how she and her husband would often listen to the phonograph before going to sleep at night, their favorite record being the Broadway cast soundtrack of the Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot. The couple identified with the music and the story it told, the epic days of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere during the Knights of the Round Table era, a glorious time, brief though it may have been. Jack and Jackie saw many parallels between their days in the White House and those of the residents of Camelot, a period when would-be heroic figures sought to accomplish great things and make the most out of each moment in which they lived. They relished the promise of their age in the same way that Arthur and Guinevere did in theirs.

Unfortunately, Jack and Jackie didn’t envision the brevity of their golden days, an irony that also paralleled the experience of their fictional counterparts. Still, in looking back on her White House years after JFK’s death, Jackie saw the splendor of those brief shining moments that she and her husband shared during that time. She relates these memories to the journalist, even seeing her time in Washington as a modern-day Camelot, a notion that would come to define the nature of the Kennedy presidency – a heritage that has lingered to this day. Even if such a view wasn’t necessarily accurate, as many observers have come to see since then, the image nevertheless persists. Crafting that legacy was chiefly Jackie’s creation, because she believed in its veracity. We can thus thank her for this fond recollection of a strong leader and a storied time in American history, images that still inspire those who aspire to their own personal greatness today. And that’s Jackie’s legacy, the gift of someone capable of elevating us about our own ambitions, even in the face of adversity, allowing our own grace under fire to emerge and blossom.

From the foregoing description, it’s obvious that “Jackie” is far from a typical biopic. The film features a stellar performance by Portman, who supremely captures the protagonist’s look, mannerisms and vocal inflections, right down to Jackie’s distinctive lilting manner of speech. In delivering her portrayal, she’s backed by a first-class supporting cast (with the exception of Sarsgaard, who, regrettably, is very much out of his league here). The picture’s meticulous re-creation of historic events, combined with superb production values in all of its technical areas (costumes, hair and makeup, production design, cinematography), make for an elegant look on the screen, one that captivates in many ways.

Considering the unique approach taken in telling Jackie’s story, the film effectively shows the many sides of its subject, both privately and publicly and in both her positive and less-flattering moments. However, at the same time, this alternate take on the biographical genre sometimes feels like it’s lacking something, especially when it comes to pulling in viewers emotionally (something that should have been easy to accomplish given the story’s subject matter). Audiences may find themselves coming away from the film realizing what a complex individual Jackie Kennedy was, though we never get as close to her as many of us might have thought we would going into the theater. The film’s uneven soundtrack – sometimes sublimely fitting, at other times comically jarring in its dissonance – and its somewhat-jumbled handling of the seminal events and their aftermath don’t always work, either, occasionally leaving viewers a bit confused about the timeline.

Despite the unevenness of director Pablo Larraín’s finished product, the picture has garnered its share of accolades. In the recent Critics Choice Awards, the film took home three statues (best lead actress, costumes, hair and makeup) on six total nominations. It has also earned its share of honors in upcoming awards competitions, including four nods in the Independent Spirit Awards program (best picture, female lead, director, editing), as well as best actress nominations in the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award contests.

When misfortune strikes, the mettle of our character is sure to be tested. But, based on the magnitude of such calamities, coupled with our beliefs and experience in such matters, it’s hard to know how we’ll respond until we find ourselves in the thick of things. That’s where sources of inspiration, like that demonstrated by Jackie Kennedy during her own unthinkable tragedy, can prove valuable in helping us cope. We can only hope that we’re able to muster the same grace under fire that she did when a family – and a nation – needed her most.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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