Review: “Jackie” Begs the Question: What Makes a Legacy?

Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” takes place in the moments and days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and is the story of the former first lady’s attempt to suppress her shock and grief so that she might hastily construct her husband’s legacy. At the opening, a reporter (Billy Crudup) approaches an eerily deserted Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts for Jacqueline Kennedy’s first interview since the president’s death. The reporter, who is loosely based on renowned historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., finds Natalie Portman’s Jackie to be a guarded, combative widow who is fiercely loyal to an idealized version of Jack Kennedy — a version that she is desperate for the public to accept. The whole film serves as her answer to the reporter’s essential question, “How would you like your husband to be remembered Mrs. Kennedy?”

While not entirely linear, the film generally occupies the interval between JFK’s death and his funeral. The audience follows a stunned Jackie in her now infamous pink dress as she is rushed from the hospital, to Air Force One, and to the White House. In her despair, she observes the seemingly seamless transition of power as LBJ is sworn into office at Love Field in Dallas. Her grief finds no comfort in the cold continuity of government. But, instead of succumbing to her misery, Jackie seizes on the fading, final moments of the Kennedy era, and is resolved to make them worthy of remembrance. Her first key decision is to disembark the airplane from the front exit in Washington; she refuses to shy away from the press. Throughout the film, Jackie works with Bobby Kennedy (John Peter Sarsgaard) to arrange the state funeral and burial of her husband. She scrupulously models everything on the funeral of President Lincoln, and remarks that she requires a “big, beautiful procession that people will remember.”

The family bickering and hastily assembled invite lists remind viewer of the unfortunate logistics that are a necessary evil accompanying death. However, I’m left wondering if the days following the assassination were genuinely transformative in terms of how the public viewed the Kennedys. Is a grand procession and an eternal flame placed upon one’s tomb what make a legacy? Surely not. By comparison, Winston Churchill’s funeral, which had been planned under the name ‘Operation Hope Not,’ lasted four days, was attended by representatives from 120 countries, and remains the largest state funeral in history. Yet, no one argues that the mournful pomp and circumstance elevated his legacy in any tangible way. At best, it was a cherry on top of his lionized life. I suppose funeral planning as a means of solidifying the family name emphasizes the strange, limited role the first lady plays: Stylizing things. Even in death.

Beyond the plot, and the outsized weight placed on last-minute legacy building, “Jackie” is beautifully framed, and the contrast between wide shots displaying sumptuous ballrooms and close-ups portraying Portman’s emotive expressions is delightful. The acting on the part of Portman is exceptional as she exhibits disbelief, grief, detachment, stoicism, tact, and pharmaceutically induced escapism. Her carefully mastered transatlantic accent is captivating. Further, while JFK (Caspar Phillipson) is rarely on screen, the actor’s uncanny resemblance to the former president is undeniable.

While “Jackie” is a worthwhile experience, one cannot help but notice the irony that lies in the film’s premise. A bereaved former first lady desperately tries to assemble a legacy for her husband; however, the viewers have come to hear her story, and to reflect on her legacy.

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