At some point during my youth I became transfixed by the Kennedys. I can't really pinpoint why. I've had J.F.K. as the background photo on my phone many times. I've kept a coffee table book of rare images of the family by my bedside for years. I suspect it was for the same reason that I love Ralph Lauren—the man. I saw in both R.L.L. and J.F.K. a self-possession few ever really achieve, and it inspired me.
Interestingly, both are men whose realities are not exactly as we, the public, see them. Ralph was born of a different name and much different status than he has now. And as audiences see in this year's penultimate film Jackie, John, or "Jack" as he's known, is more myth than actual man—much like the woman who was by his side.
Jackie is a study in understanding the reality of the woman Jackie, and the lengths to which she tried to obfuscate that reality for the masses. The film has four main narrative threads, centered around iconic images of the Lady of Camelot. One is Kennedy's assassination and the moments right after during which Jackie was quite graphically "holding his head together," and deciding how to handle the way she would appear in public. Another shows the interview Jackie did for Life Magazine where her desire to write her own story is very evident. The third is Jackie's White House special which aired in 1962. The broadcast shows a poised woman, eager to make her husband and country proud. The final thread is the story of the funeral preparations and Jackie's intense grief in the immediate aftermath. Woven together, the film portrays the image of a first lady intent to cement the legacy of the presidential institution—and her husband—at any cost.
It's not a documentary, and to my knowledge the living family was not involved with the production as fact checkers, but many reports have revealed the painstaking lengths taken to achieve historical accuracy in Jackie. The director, Pablo Larraín, is Chilean and, therefore, a bit removed from the American take on the story. He has been forthright that many scenes, such as one in which Jackie indulges in a few vodkas and plays dress up with her gowns, are pure fiction. Others though, like the scenes immediately following the shooting and re-creation of Jackie's White House special, are eerily biographical.
It's amazing and almost indisputable, as the movie shows, that the media portrayals of J.F.K.—including this very film—transcend reality. What's more amazing is that Jackie seems to have orchestrated it all, arguably to her own detriment. Whereas her late husband was absolved of his many indiscretions and flaws and elevated to sacrosanct immunity by the people, Jackie was often ridiculed, even villainized, for her choices after his assassination.
The film shows Jackie as a woman who wanted so badly for her husband to be remembered forever as a great man that she inadvertently sacrificed herself. As many have noted, Jackie shows Mrs. Kennedy positively undone and yet functioning. She refers to "her job" in the film, as though simply living is work for her. Her life seems to be a study in putting others first for the sake of the Kennedy name.
Even not killing herself seemed to be about someone other than herself. In one of the film's scenes Jackie speaks to a priest about her despair. The scene is fictional, but based on actual letters exchanged between the former first lady and the clergy. At one point Jackie says that people who kill themselves are self-indulgent; yet she says that her decision to follow through with the controversial walking processional at his funeral was motivated by a hope that someone would actually kill her and put her out of her misery. In the end, his funeral was a grand spectacle, and she wore a literal veil—just as she did metaphorically every day of her public life.
Jackie of course benefited from the legacy she crafted of Camelot. But it seems also obvious that she suffered greatly. Her every move was scrutinized. Everything she did, seemingly, was judged as either honoring or not honoring her late husband. In the wake of her husband's brutal killing, she could never publicly falter—how could anything be so bad as what she had already been through?
While I cannot relate to the position of a widowed first lady, I think many of us can understand what it is to feel like our public persona is more important than our private one. Our Instagram feeds are our own little Camelot; we think we can fool people into thinking our life is curated to our exact specifications. But Jackie showed the side of Mrs. Kennedy we don't often see. The scared side, the imperfect side. The movie has done for Jackie's legacy what Jackie did for John's.
Perhaps at the time of his death what we needed was to see J.F.K. as some sort of god among men. But just the same, what we need today is to see Jackie as a woman with more depth than her sartorial or marital achievements allow. Some might see this film as a betrayal of her image; I see it as a vast improvement. Whereas J.F.K. was whitewashed in death, Jackie has now been stripped bare. And that's exactly what we needed. We needed to know her, not look at her. We needed to understand her decisions, not judge them.
I found the image of a struggling Jackie far more compelling and relatable than any perfectly coiffed version of her has ever been. This movie has given me a new outlook on America's most famous family, and helped me see that an edited life isn't necessarily a happy one. And whether I'm looking at the Kennedys or the Cambridges or the Kardashians, that's a very important lesson to remember.
Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures