A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.”
Camelot. In 1960, the musical production of the same name by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe opened on Broadway. Based on the T. H. White novel The Once and Future King, it chronicled a legend of the famed King Arthur. The musical was a national sensation, running on Broadway for 873 performances and winning four Tony Awards to boot. The cast recording became the top-selling album for a whopping sixty weeks. In 1963, the musical ended its astounding run and within the same year, it gained publicity for an entirely different reason. President John F. Kennedy was a classmate of Lerner’s at Harvard and his classmate’s musical became his favorite bedtime story. It was perhaps calming to President Kennedy, the story of the gallant king who ruled Camelot and became forevermore associated with gallantry, beauty, and bravery. At the end of Camelot, King Arthur passes the story of his famed kingdom onto a young knight, binding him to the promise of ensuring that the story itself remained for generations to come. As Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, Black Swan) notes to the Reporter (Billy Crudup, Alien: Covenant), those final lines from King Arthur to the young knight were President Kennedy’s favorite. They were the lines that became encapsulating on an entire administration whose legend grew far beyond what the administration itself was, whose legend became far more important than the reality it embodied. A bitter Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, The Killing) notes as much, rueing that the Kennedys were just the beautiful people and that was it, the beautiful people who loved art but didn’t do anything on Civil Rights or Vietnam. While history would prove that leaving Vietnam to President Lyndon B. Johnson was no dream for Johnson himself, those words rang throughout the minds of a woman whose greatest contribution to history was the legacy that she created from the ashes of her husband’s death.
Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is a swirling, captivating portrait of a woman who became an icon and in her greatest moment of grief created the greatest work of her art for the ages. Jackie once wrote that she wanted to be the art director of the twentieth century. She accomplished her goal but in the most ironic of fashions. Jackie is, speaking of fashion, remembered for her stunning sense of style and the grace with which she carried herself. She is remembered for her breathy, baby-like voice she created. She is remembered for her CBS tour of the White House, the first primetime documentary that was created to target female viewers and which won the First Lady a special Emmy Award. She is rarely remembered, however, for her intelligence and for her acute notes on seemingly every single figure that entered or interacted with the Kennedy administration. She is rarely remembered for her political acumen in understanding just how much the presentation of politics mattered as much as the politics themselves. She is rarely remembered in the capacity of a First Lady who took the White House and imbued it with the sense of history and understanding that a monument like that ought to have. She is rarely remembered as being the architect of the Camelot mythology, the mythology that took the fame of the Kennedy family and crafted it into a legend. A part of that is that Jackie was never one to be open and brash with her politics, firmly aware of the pre-feminism standards of etiquette in the 1960s. A part of that is because the contributions of First Ladies are often overlooked because they’re seen as not being of significant importance. Jackie puts the story of its leading lady front and center in the hopes of bringing light to what she was able to accomplish, what she was able to understand about the American people and the American legacy that most presidents weren’t able to.
Biopics are products of a genre of filmmaking that is ubiquitous. There is a fascination with wanting to know, to understand famed and infamous figures of the past. Some individuals like biopics that encapsulate the entire life of an individual, but I find those to be harried pieces of filmmaking that try to stuff too much into a timeframe of two hours or so. Other biopics, such as Ava DuVernay’s recent Selma, opt for a different route and choose to study the individual at the front and center through a specific period in their lives. While I am partial to the latter style of biopic filmmaking, both have their unique challenges. Larraín in Jackie manages to create a distinct subset of biopic filmmaking that subverts expectations in a mostly thrilling fashion. He isn’t entirely interested in if everything that was constructed around the legacy of Camelot and Jackie Kennedy herself is quite true. He’s not entirely interested in going from the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas to his grand processional funeral in a chronological order, even. He’s more interested in deconstructing the idea behind Jackie Kennedy, the person behind Jackie Kennedy, and the idea and the person she became. The greatest weakness of this approach is that it requires a tight script and sharp editing that ensures that the cutting back and forth never loses sight of the anguish, tragedy, and pageantry on display. The film doesn’t quite achieve that, especially in the second act where the transitions lose the sharpness and thusly imbues the proceedings with dullness while losing the metaphorical power at its disposal. It’s an unfortunate display of messiness from a film that is otherwise so well-constructed but thankfully it manages to resurrect itself for a tremendous, powerful finish in the third act.
The film’s central narrative thoroughfare is an amalgamation of interview Jackie Kennedy gave at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts a week after her husband’s assassination. Here the Reporter, brought to life by the fantastic Billy Crudup, is unsure of how to behave, exactly what to ask. That hesitation is understandable for how does someone ask anything of a woman whose husband’s skull was shattered onto her face with the entire world watching her afterwards? How does someone ask her what the bullet sounded like, how she felt when she saw her husband’s brain splattering onto that infamous pink dress? How does someone ask her how she felt standing next to President Johnson and First Lady Byrd Johnson in that dress as he took the Oath of Office? It’s apparent that the Reporter has assumptions about how the former First Lady would behave based on the careful public appearance she created from the moment her husband announced his presidential campaign. He’s struck by her intelligence, by her profound poise, and her control of the narrative around her husband’s assassination when most people wouldn’t have been able to get a grip on their being. He became aware that as they sat through her recollections and traumas that she was constructing the legacy of Camelot her husband had loved hearing every night before bed. It was important to her to make sure that her husband didn’t become another assassinated president forgotten in the annals of history. She would create a legacy for him. As she departs in a car from the White House for the final time, the “Finale Ultimo” from Camelot rings forth. Jackie looks upon all of the mannequins constructed in her image with an inscrutable expression. Perhaps she feels that she has constructed the legacy, perhaps the superficiality of it all bears heavily upon her soul. We don’t know. We do know the grief and the tragedy that Jackie went through. The film’s deconstruction of that grief is tremendously powerful, gut-wrenching, and humanizing.
At the center of it all is Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy. Portman crafts one of the finest performances put to screen in recent memory and even if she doesn’t particularly look like Jackie Kennedy herself, it ceases to matter because Portman thoroughly becomes the famed figure. Her recreation of the First Lady’s tour of the White House is an astounding piece of filmmaking and acting, Portman seemingly effortlessly weaving in and out of the actual footage used from the CBS special. She is mesmerizing in her moments of fierceness where she becomes, as noted to her grieving self in the film, a mother to the American people in a time of profound grief and tragedy. She creates awe when she breaks down, her grief overwhelming her sense of tragedy that is never allowed to become truly hers. Portman’s Jackie is a thoroughly complex figure, but a figure whom, by placing herself within the shadows of the limelight, is able to understand the importance of public relations in a way that others were simply unable to. She carved a path for herself in the moments when she was in essence no one, when everyone wanted to give her at least the appearance of sympathy while trying to shuffle her off of the stage as quietly as possible. Jackie never leaves quietly, creating the legacy that the Kennedys would be remembered for arguably forever. Even in her moments with a reporter, she carefully spells out the truth but makes sure that everything that would come out of the reporter’s pen served the story of Camelot. She knew that not everything was strictly speaking true, such as the heroism of her husband on the battlefield. Some parts, such as the emphasis that the First Lady never smoke, were outright lies. But Jackie had a keen sense of intelligence and understanding of how history itself was changing. Before history was kept to the pen and paper. But now, to paraphrase Jackie Kennedy herself, we have cinema and in the age of cinema, the truth may just have to settle for a believable story.
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Produced by: Juan de Dios Larraín, Darren Aronofsky, Mickey Liddell, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel
Written by: Noah Oppenheim
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt
Music by: Mica Levi
Cinematography by: Stéphane Fontaine
Edited by: Sebastián Sepúlveda
Production Company(s): LD Entertainment, Wild Bunch, Fabula, Why Not Productions, Bliss Media, Endemol Shine Studios, Protozoa
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Dates: December 2, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Slash Film
Sources: Stempleski, Susan, “Review of New York Philharmonic ‘Camelot’”; Kantor, Michael and Maslon, Laurence, “Broadway: The American Musical” ; White, Theodore H., “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” Life; First Ladies
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