New York Film Festival
Biopics are for the fans. No matter how revisionist the narrative or inventive the form, the genre exists to privilege the audience over the subject. Instead of learning facts from a biography or textbook (but more likely Wikipedia), the biopic lures us in with a promise of approximated intimacy. It strips away the mythology built around a figure to make them more human to us.
This approach makes sense for certain subjects in narrative film, particularly those who audiences can observe with relatively little pre-existing baggage. If we know but an accomplishment here and a footnote there, a film does not have to override our assumptions. Instead, it can provide a frame of reference for us, establishing the structure by which we judge a person. (If this sounds too abstract, picture recent successful examples like “The Social Network” or “American Splendor.”)
But what about those biopics who must confront the enduring legacy of figures who loom so large in our imaginations before the first frame appears? In recent years, filmmakers have resurrected presidents, actors, musicians, inventors and more who continue to occupy space in our heads. The dominant approach has been to ignore the patina of notoriety surrounding them, opting instead to focus on our shared humanity.
These films so often fail because they forget something that Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” does not. The mythology informs the humanity for these people. At a certain point, knowing that you lead a life that could one day be recounted in a biopic seeps into every fiber of your being. It’s not enough to go back to a time, either in childhood or pre-fame, that can connect us with them. By virtue of receiving this kind of treatment, they are different people. We all have some sense that we are performing for an audience in our daily lives, but these icons must wear their public face so much that it ultimately seeps into the consciousness of their private face.
“Jackie” closely scrutinizes the period of several days when those two faces merged for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman. In the wake of her husband’s assassination, she asks not what her country needed her to be … but she needed to be for her country. Faced with a ticking clock, Jackie and her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) must lay to rest their beloved John in a way that secures his legacy in America’s history. If not, he risks becoming a footnote, a beautiful person who did little to aid his nation. And she, in this scenario, could become the Marie Antoinette, a lavish dilettante who lived large off the American taxpayer.
JFK accomplished fairly little in his roughly thousand day term in office. Jackie knows that, if based on accomplishments alone, her husband’s stature would not exactly be cowering. So in the run-up to his funeral, she plots a retreat into fantasy and mythology. The Kennedys loved listening to LPs from the musical “Camelot” about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, and that’s what she decides to sell to the American people. There’s a difference between “what people believe and what I know to be real,” Jackie tells a journalist played by Billy Crudup in the film’s framing device; she chooses to buy into the beliefs of an ailing nation.
The most common reference point for characters – particularly women – who retreat into imagination is Blanche DuBois of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” yet Jackie feels cut from an entirely different cloth. She is not a passive figure who is acted upon and pummeled into the prison of her own mind. Rather, Jackie is an active participant in constructing her fantasy, her Camelot. And nowhere is there any comfort in this retreat into legend. Both oppressive close-ups and removed long shots of small people dwarfed in the halls of history highlight just how alone she is in this journey.
In many ways, Jackie is uniquely prepared for the folkloric task given her enhanced visibility in the television era. Interspersed throughout Noah Oppenheim’s script for “Jackie,” to slightly clunky effect, are shot-for-shot recreations of a CBS television special Jackie shot to show off the work she did restoring the White House. It’s a genius insertion because it show not only how Jackie reluctantly chose to present and justify herself to the country, but also because it establishes the expectations of quiet domesticity she constructs for herself (and millions of other women as well). Smile more. Stand straight. Talk about work others deem “frivolous” with gusto, and then sit back quietly while men describe the “real” work.
Breaking out of this role proves a challenge in the wake of her husband’s assassination, when John’s closest advisors believe they should shield her from the public limelight while they do the real work of securing his legacy through a successful transition into the Johnson Administration. She has no intention of simply grieving privately, however. Though he never saved a divided union, Jackie insists that JFK get the full Lincoln treatment in his funeral procession – more horses, more soldiers, more crying. And, not to mention, more cameras.
We often accept history as a given, not acknowledging the behind-the-scenes actors who shape our notions of it. “Jackie” challenges the conception of the Kennedys in the public imagination by citing its protagonist as the chief architect of their legacy, not merely its decorator. She bet on the idea that Americans would rather believe in a fairy tale than a textbook, and she was correct. The cost was consistency in her own reality.
Similar to the accomplishment of Lin-Manuel Miranda with “Hamilton,” Larraín, Oppenheim and Portman successfully reclaim Jackie Kennedy from her gilded perch among the beautiful people. “Jackie” makes the biopic genre favor the subject, not the audience. The film does not belittle Jackie by trying to make her somehow more like us. It shows us the unique pressures of her situation, how they suffocated her, and how she somehow managed to find the capacity to breathe again. B+ /