In “Jackie,” Natalie Portman portrays first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the days immediately following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It is a period of glazed grief, profound anxiety and keen-eyed concern about her late husband’s legacy, which she is shown cementing by choreographing a funeral procession modeled on Abraham Lincoln’s and conducting an interview during which she very deliberately compares the Kennedy era to Camelot.
Throughout the film, which opens this week in Washington, writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín simultaneously pay tribute to Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic persona and challenge it head-on. They portray her as the figure of superb grace, taste and strength that endeared her to millions of Americans but also as a woman with a shrewd sense of history and symbolism who was far more knowing, even calculating, than her demure public persona suggested.
With its combination of rigorously detailed historical recreation, real-life archival footage and purely speculative fantasy — not to mention Portman’s searing physical and psychological performance — “Jackie” creates an unsettling, almost hallucinatory mix of fact and fiction. No sooner has Larraín seamlessly transported Portman into Mrs. Kennedy’s 1962 “Tour of the White House” television special than he confects a fantastical montage in which she staggers in a druggy haze through the East Wing, sipping vodka and trying on couture gowns from a life that is rapidly receding into a dim and idealized past.
“Jackie,” in other words, is not a comfort-blanket biopic. Rather than reproduce the reassuring image of gentility and glamour we’ve come to associate with Jacqueline Kennedy, it continually undermines that consensus version of one of the 20th century’s most private public figures. Already, some viewers — especially baby boomers who came of age during the Kennedy era — have announced that they’re not interested in having their view of Jacqueline Kennedy ruined by Larraín’s countermyth. At a recent preview screening at the Avalon Theatre — named, appropriately enough, for another Arthurian enclave — a handful of viewers could be overheard expressing shock and dismay at being confronted with the fact that Mrs. Kennedy secretly smoked.
As unsettling as “Jackie” often is, it’s also a consoling portrait of a time that, especially in this political season, in some ways seems worthy of halcyon legend after all. A week after her husband’s murder, angered by historians and writers who are already challenging his accomplishments, Mrs. Kennedy summons a writer from Life magazine to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port to advance her own version of the official narrative. Based on real-life journalist Theodore White, Billy Crudup’s unnamed author dutifully records Mrs. Kennedy’s dictation, ceding her full editorial control, including revealing erasures (“I don’t smoke,” she insists icily) and the Camelot comparison. As contentious as their conversation is at times, it now seems quaint that there was once as trusted and far-reaching a journalistic institution as Life for Mrs. Kennedy to use to connect with her public. Even the political transition to Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, while certainly fraught, proceeds apace with admirable decorum and gravitas.
But planted within that fond look back are also the seeds of what was to come, seeds that the Kennedys themselves helped sow, wittingly or not, and that have now come into florid bloom. As figures who occupied the liminal space between politics and pop culture, they arguably presaged a time, 50 years later, when a reality-TV star could not just credibly run for president, but win.
Mrs. Kennedy’s invention and adroit deployment of the Camelot myth — which took firm hold despite some skeptical howls — looks relatively benign when juxtaposed with the fake news and outright falsehoods promulgated by the incoming administration, from President-elect Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that 3 million people voted illegally in November to a virulent hoax involving the Washington pizzeria Comet Ping Pong that resulted in an armed gunman entering the restaurant this past weekend.
Alarmists might suggest that our willingness to indulge artistic liberties on the big screen has inured us to the far more consequential distortions that now plague a “post-fact” culture. But there’s a crucial difference between creative license and lying. In “Jackie,” Larraín announces his intention to depart from literal truth from the very beginning of the film when we hear the eerie, disorienting chords of Mica Levi’s boldly abstract score. Throughout the movie, through sound, image and Portman’s uncanny performance — often captured in claustrophobic, hyper-real close-ups — the filmmakers make clear that their goal isn’t to deceive viewers with pseudo-documentary “authenticity” but to provoke and challenge our most dearly held assumptions about what counts as authentic at all. Similarly, even the most contested fact-based movies in recent history — “JFK,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Selma” among them — were obviously their authors’ impressions of events rather than raw feeds of the events themselves, if only because they were so clearly and explicitly framed. Everything about the filmgoing experience, from the smell of the popcorn to the size of the screen, conditions us to process what we’re seeing as entertainment — and, sometimes, art.
We’ve now entered a mass-media space in which the most crucial frames have disappeared. The facts that filmmakers use as fodder for leaps of interpretive imagination are now being routinely warped (or, more commonly, disregarded) in service to the dark arts of demagoguery, with grave life-and-death stakes. When Washington Post reporters interviewed purveyors of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory this week, one of them lightheartedly compared it to the same kind of hobbyism practiced by assassination buffs who take “JFK” as gospel; another called his amateur Pizzagate investigation “a work of art.”
Of course, to really appreciate a work of art, one needs critical thinking skills — a value embodied in “Jackie” by the title character but one that has been cast aside over years of politicians and pundits fulminating against “historically inaccurate” films while willfully ignoring the growing importance of media literacy, especially in public schools. As “Jackie” reminds us, there might have been a time when Americans relied on consensus history, agreed-upon facts and shared notions of objective reality to acquit our participatory duties as informed citizens. Today, we’re more apt to pick and choose which narratives to accept, as if we’re deciding which movie we want to see at the multiplex on Friday night.
In both equations, what we crave isn’t accuracy as much as fealty to our own self-selected viewpoints, a trade-off easily accommodated by an increasingly balkanized media culture. We’re all on the verge of becoming those ladies at the Avalon, reluctant to allow anyone to mess with our myths. The question is whether the islands we’ve built for ourselves can thrive simply by cultivating our most cherished fictions, while facts as we used to know them wither and die on the vine.
Jackie Opening Friday at area theaters. Contains brief strong violence and obscenity. 100 minutes.