Larraín’s latest has been nominated for three Academy Awards, so I don’t need to tell you it’s a film worth your time or attention. What I do need to tell you is this—be prepared for a harrowing trip through time and space. The film’s action unfolds disjointedly, and uncannily. John Hurt plays Jackie’s priest, may he now rest in peace, but at the time of my first viewing in early December, I couldn’t help think what an obvious choice for that quiet, Fatherly character—a former Doctor Who Time Lord—who could make his viewers believe he’s seen all, knows all. Let me also not discount Natalie Portman, without whom Larraín refused to make the film; Portman’s Best Actress nomination says sufficient, for now. And Billy Crudup plays a perfect no-nonsense reporter, supposedly Theodore H. White, though credited only as “The Journalist.” The way Jackie schools White is integral to this film—the grieving first lady’s grit is essential.
For Jackie is on a mission, and she needs all her strength. Jackie says to White of her imperfect husband, “Perfect people can’t change. Jack was always getting better…stronger.” Portman as Jackie convinces viewers that human imperfection, not perfection, is the true virtue: “Jack was not perfect, but he was perfect for our country.” Here she is referring to Jack’s plans to better the country with his brother Bobby. Later, Jackie says, “I tried to hold his head together,” and the dialogue has metaphorical weight far beyond even that horrible moment. Viewers see Jackie’s imperfections, too—her vanity, her duplicity—but she is determined to mold all of their imperfections, both her own and her husband’s, into personal and public assets. For the narrative timespan of this film, Jackie’s boundless sorrow solidifies her own standing.
The film is an odyssey of grief, and Jackie’s pain only becomes all the more poignant when viewers are reminded of her losses as a mother: “And my two babies. Arabella in the womb. And Patrick. Thirty-nine hours on this earth. Just long enough to fall in love with him.” Compound that double loss with that of her husband’s untimely death, and then think what it must have been like to bury her children not once, but twice, so they would be near their father. Her whims were not whims, but excruciating choices. As I sat in the theater, I knew the little boy in the blue suit to be a man destined to die in a plane crash—how legends may fall from the sky, from the blindness and bullets of men—and I wept in the dark for more than just Jackie’s fallen. At the end of the interview with White, after we’ve endured the blood spatter and the heartbreak, Jackie says, “There won’t be another Camelot. Not another Camelot.” And I have to agree. That body of legends is lost to us—that dream of fairness, of equality, of pride in our leadership. Jackie refers to a musical, to a myth, but she describes our world with brutal and final accuracy. Jackie may be a historical film, but educated viewers cannot deny its all-to-relevant prescience.