Love In A Hopeless Place: ‘Jackie’ Is A Requiem For The American Dream

jackie-natalie-portman-caspar-phillipson She remembers how hot the sun was in Dallas, and the crowds — greater and wilder than the crowds in Mexico or in Vienna. The sun was blinding, streaming down; yet she could not put on sunglasses for she had to wave to the crowd.

And up ahead she remembers seeing a tunnel around a turn and thinking that there would be a moment of coolness under the tunnel. There was the sound of motorcycles, as always in a parade, and the occasional backfire of a motorcycle. The sound of the shot came, at that moment, like the sound of a backfire, and she remembers Connally saying, “No, no, no, no, no…”

In my Top Ten list from last year, I acknowledged that the experience of seeing a movie weighed heavily in one’s response to that movie. I loved the offbeat indie comedy Mistress America, my unlikely favorite film of the year, and I have rewatched it several times since then and loved it just as much. But I also love my memory of first seeing it, on a rainy afternoon at the Starlight Theater in Port Townsend, Washington. I love them equally: the movie and the memory.

Natalie Portman as One’s experience of seeing a film shouldn’t be the only qualifier in how one responds to that film, but art is subjective. We can’t expect experience to not be a part of loving or loathing a movie. What were we tasting, feeling, smelling at the time? How did that affect what we were seeing and hearing? In a perfect world, maybe we tune those things out, pay attention wholly to the film itself. But I don’t know that we’re capable of that. Our response to a movie depends on when we see, where we see it, how we see it, who we see it with… maybe even why we see it. All of these must factor in, at least a little.

The world is a different place than it was twenty years ago. I am a different person in it, because of what happened in the world, and what happened to me. And so I see films differently now than I would have then, even if it is the same movie. Try as we might, we can’t separate the art from the experience, and we can never know fully if it just hit us the right way in the right moment. That’s the beauty of it. So I’ll never know what I would have thought of Jackie twenty years ago, or forty years from now, or in a more sensible world where things had turned out differently in this country.

I can only imagine my response to Jackie in the alternate reality where we awaitthe inauguration of Hillary Clinton. How interesting, I’d say, to see a movie about a First Lady brushing up against bureaucracy, carving out an important slice of history from a position of little authority. Look how far we’ve come. Witness a woman who started as a First Lady, just like Jackie, a subject of gossip and criticism she may or may not have deserved. A woman who lacked a certain amount of agency despite her vaunted position of power. A woman who had to smile for the cameras no matter what her husband did; the woman who was left to pay for his sins, and then some, and did it all with poise and grace. Look, look, at this woman, becoming the President of the United States.

But we don’t live in that world, do we?jackie-natalie-portman-pink-dress-blood-stainIn such a world, I may have liked Jackie; I may even have loved it. We’ll never know. But in this reality — a crueler, more disappointing world — I was transfixed by it. Director Pablo Larrain is not an American; of course, he is not a psychic, either. He directed Jackie with no knowledge of what was to come in this dark, disturbing, and quite likely doomed chapter in American history. Noah Oppenheim wrote the script with blinders to the future, too. Yet, as if by magic, the two have managed to capture something that reaches through time and space and celluloid to grab us by the hearts… and stop them. That’s how I felt, watching Jackie — deeply touched, and fatally ended. There is no single better image to sum up 2016 than a First Lady covered in her husband’s blood, stalking through the White House like a zombie. Jackie is the perfect funeral dirge for America in 2016.

Jackie takes place a few days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, with brief flashbacks to his time in office and that fateful afternoon in Dallas. Natalie Portman plays the iconic Jackie, flawlessly mimicking her unique accent and mannerisms in the year’s most transcendent performance. Larrain’s film jumps nimbly, sometimes jarringly, through space and time, between Dallas and Washington and a post-assassination interview conducted by a character credited as “The Journalist,” who in real life was Theodore H. White, one of history’s most esteemed political journalists.jackie-natalie-portman-white-house-bedroomThis is the kind of framing device you’ve seen in a lot of biopics, though in Jackie, it’s barely a framing device at all, because Jackie is no biopic. It’s a tone poem, and that tone is dreary and depressed — appropriately so, for both November 1963 and December 2016. The bulk of the film depicts Jackie’s grief over her husband’s violent, horrifying death, as she struggles with how best to make funeral arrangements for the leader of the free world and copes with her sudden irrelevance in the White House. She drinks, she smokes, she cries, as you’d expect; she also decides to spin a narrative that casts her late husband as the American hero he never quite was, less to glorify the Kennedy name than to give the American people something to believe in in their darkest hour. At least, that’s what she says. Was this Jackie Kennedy’s true intent? I have no earthly idea, and neither does anyone else at this point. I believe the screen version of Ms. Kennedy when she says so, though the film trades in ambiguities and you can draw your own conclusions.

Jackie tells the Journalist to liken John’s term to King Arthur and the noble knights of the Round Table; to Camelot. In a sense, this is ridiculous iconography to attach to a modern President of the United States, especially one who infamously cheated on his wife incessantly. In Jackie, though, it plays as curiously heroic; maybe because Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, is a president we tend to hold in much lower regard, maybe because nearly any human being on the planet would be a more desirable president than the one we’re about to get. John F. Kennedy wasn’t perfect, but Jackie reminds us of an era in which the leaders of our country were worthy of respect, a time that lasted from the foundation of this country through 2016, a time that’s about to come to a screeching end. What Jackie knew in 1963 is something we have recently, tragically forgotten. The American dream can only persist if it stays alive in the collective consciousness. For this reason, Jackie knows, presidents have to be remembered as a little better than they were. For current and future leaders to strive to be their best, they and we must believe these American legends. In Jackie, we mourn JFK, but really, we mourn every president who came before and since, because all of that is being buried now — our belief that our leaders, though flawed, will have our best intentions at heart. That they will set aside ego and self-interest for the good of this nation. Jackie believes Camelot died with John, but as we watch from 2016, we feel it dying just now, all around us.

Goodbye, Camelot.

Natalie Portman as There are so many links between this story set in 1962 and the one unfurling now in 2016, so perfectly ironic that they must have been planted purposefully — except they couldn’t have been. Importantly, Jackie becomes the first First Lady to bring TV cameras into the White House, creating a new relationship between the American people and the presidency. Now, we can look at this as the beginning of the end, because in 2016, America voted to put a TV star in the White House. As Jackie shows off her opulent home for the TV viewers of the 1960s, we now feel it as the first domino falling, and hear the echo from way out here in 2016.

The 1960s felt like an apocalyptic moment in American history, due in part to several shocking assassinations and rapid cultural upheaval that bucked social norms left and right. The world was changing faster than we could reckon with it. The same thing is happening now — or maybe a very different thing. It’s too soon to tell. JFK’s assassination raised questions about Russian interference in American politics. The Cuban Missile Crisis made it feel as if nuclear war was imminent, something we’ve haven’t had to worry much about since (until now?). Kennedy began the embargo on Cuba in 1961; as if on cue, Fidel Castro died a couple weeks after this year’s election put a similar nationalist in charge of the United States. The Kennedy administration was a long time ago, but its repercussions are acutely felt in 2016, moreso than some of the administrations that came afterward.

They say history repeats itself. Let’s hope.

caspar-phillipson-natalie-portman-jfk-jackieEven aside from its eerie connections to the war-torn 2016 political landscape, Jackie is about much more than just a First Lady mourning her man. It’s about how history is shaped; how legends are born. Jackie weeps, not just for her lost love, but for a country she believes is falling to pieces around her. (If only she knew how much worse things could get!) We easily join her in shedding those tears. We can relate. We all create our own legends in our minds, based on what we remember and how we remember it. The same is true, in a larger sense, of how our history is remembered. Had Jackie reacted differently to her husband’s death, we may have an entirely different understanding of JFK’s short but poignant reign.

Jackie unfolds as memories do, out of sequence and without logic; often, we see conversations unfold while jumping through multiple locations, but is this how they actually occurred or just how Jackie remembers them? It doesn’t matter, because I don’t think much of what occurs in Jackie’s recent past is meant to be taken literally. It’s what she remembers. It’s her history; regardless of whether it’s truly true, it’s true to her. We can pretend that some version of these events is the “real” one, but in fact, everything we know about history has been told to us, filtered through one subjective lens, or a dozen, or a hundred. That’s how history works — it happens, and then it’s shaped and reshaped. Jackie remembers the horror or her husband’s death, but also the man who lived before it. She knows he was a womanizer, but she loves him. She loved dancing with him.

She was, like so many of us, hoping things would turn out better.

jackie-natalie-portman-drink-vodkaJackie passes astonishingly quickly. An hour and forty minutes felt like about half that length. I suspect there’s plenty of footage that wound up on the cutting room floor, which may be for the best, given how expertly Jackie is crafted — though I’d happily watch a three hour cut of a film like this. Produced by Darren Aronofsky, the film feels a lot like one of his movies in both style and tone. It’s a requiem for a different kind of dream. The similarities to Black Swan are most acute, as Larrain’s camera follows Portman’s Jackie through the White House, often from behind, the way it stalked Portman’s Nina in Black Swan. It’s impossible to believe that Aronofsky had no influence in this. Director of Photography Stéphane Fontaine frames so many shots so beautifully; though Moonlight gives Jackie a run for its money, I’m not sure any film from 2016 looks as gorgeous as this. Technically, the film is an A+ across the board, from the costuming to the production design and especially the distressing score by Mica Levi. For about a half a second, the strings in Jackie‘s score sound lush and hopeful, then suddenly they slide downward and everything takes a turn for the worse. It’s the perfect accompaniment for a rotting American dream.

And yet, as good as it all is, I don’t expect many audiences to connect with Jackie the way I did; it’s divisive, far from the unqualified critical darling that Moonlight deservedly is. Jackie is a strange, sad, unconventional movie; a lot of people will probably see it because the trailers and posters show Natalie Portman wearing some amazing, iconic outfits, expecting a more straightforward biopic. They’ll leave confused, bothered, and disappointed. I wouldn’t have it any other way, really; I wouldn’t want this one to be more palatable, or go down more easily. At this moment in time, I want a film that sticks in my throat, that forces us to reckon with it.natalie-portman-jackie-peter-sarsgaard-bobby-kennedyIf Jackie has any weakness (and I’m not sure it does), it’s found in the scenes between Crudup and Portman, which give us little context for the tenor of the relationship between this journalist and the widowed First Lady, or what precisely is going on here. Brushing up on the history behind this encounter after the fact lent them a lot more weight, though I might wish Jackie clued us in a bit more to the dynamic between the two to eliminate the guesswork. It might come off as a weak gimmick to those who don’t know. Aside from the Journalist, Jackie also makes important confessions to two other figures throughout the film: a priest, played by John Hurt, who helps her grapple with the intense emotional pain that threatens her will to live, and Bobby Kennedy, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who rages after his brother’s death. Again, what we know of the future adds crushing sadness to what plays out on screen; we know this Kennedy, too, will be shot soon enough. Seeing a very young John F. Kennedy Jr. is even more heartbreaking. You certainly can’t blame Larrain for Jackie‘s oppressively somber tone.

Caspar Phillipson plays the man himself; the resemblance is uncanny, its effect haunting. Many filmmakers would have been skittish about showing us JFK at all, but that would have been cheating in a film that’s all about Jackie’s tortured memories about life and death of the man she loves. But Larrain doesn’t give us too much JFK, either: that would have been an easy crutch to fall back on, too. Meanwhile, Beth Grant and John Carroll Lynch play the incoming First Family, the Johnsons, and Greta Gerwig portrays Jackie’s BFF Nancy, but these are brief appearances. This is Portman’s show through and through, and she plays the hell out of it. She’s almost sure to get an Oscar nomination, though the film is probably too off-putting to secure her a win, especially considering that she won already for Black Swan. But the performance will live on as one of her best, if not the best.jackie-natalie-portman-jfk-funeralIs Jackie a great film? Out of context, I don’t rightly know; I’ll have to see it again, and even then, I can only view it knowing what I know and feeling what I feel about what’s happened to America. And in that context, I suspect it’s a masterpiece. The themes of the film are elusive, unless you’re willing to look for them and bring some of yourself to the experience. Jackie touches upon many ideas and then quickly moves on, leaving you to think about them more, if you want to, or not. It is not a crowd-pleaser; it’s a fucking bummer. As well it should be. As any film about American politics released in 2016 should be.

If you dare to look for hope here, take comfort in Jackie’s belief that Camelot ended in 1962, that life was not worth living after that. She moved on, and so did we. America had some shining moments in the moments to come. It recovered from Kennedy’s death, and even thrived for a good portion of that time. It may have seemed like the end of everything, but it was not.

We are now asking ourselves the same questions Jackie asked then, at a moment that seems just as dark and just as dire. Maybe Kennedy’s death wasn’t the end at all; maybe it was the beginning… and now it’s finally ending. Maybe this is it.

It’s hard to be hopeful. It’s difficult not to fear the worst, when everything you know and feel suggests that the best of it is gone now. Jackie may have been wrong about that, but that doesn’t mean we are wrong. I suspect, as Jackie did then, that it’s over. But only time tells such tales.jackie-kennedy-bobby-john-jr-jfk-funeralShe said it is time people paid attention to the new President and the new First Lady. But she does not want them to forget John F. Kennedy or read of him only in dusty or bitter histories:

For one brief shining moment there was Camelot.

And now there’s not.

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