Culture

Jackie Reminds Us: Political Celebrities Once Had a Modicum of Self-Awareness

Natalie Portman in Jackie (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
And Wes Anderson, in his best new work in years, celebrates capitalism, briefly.

Natalie Portman’s impersonation of Jacqueline Kennedy in the movie Jackie explores the emotional balancing act of a famous woman, wife of the most powerful man in the world, intimate witness to his murder, and inadvertent political player on the field of decorum that was her lot in life. The film itself is a project teetering between fact and legend. Portman empathically portrays the eternal pop icon as someone who was deprived of ever having a private moment. So, every scene — setting out the terms of an interview to a journalist or screaming to the universe from the back seat of a blood-strewn limousine — calls for an existential examination. It’s a tour de force that works precisely because it doesn’t have to be totally convincing, just insightful.

Jackie arrives at a moment of transition when the popular perspective on politics, having gone through eight years of media-led idol worship, now enters a phase of skepticism mixed with suspense. Jackie applies that uncertainty and expectation to its presentation of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life after John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination, when she could either have collapsed or returned to her origins of upper-class irrelevance. Jackie is not the work of our finest filmmakers; it is second-rate compared with other Kennedy-myth films (Roger Donaldson and Kevin Costner’s Thirteen Days being the best). Yet, surprisingly, director Pablo Larraí​​n and producer Darren Aronofsky keep their jaded tendencies in check and maintain a relatively humane perspective. 

Even if you know nothing about Jacqueline Kennedy or have only a vague sense of the events before and after JFK’s assassination, Portman’s freakily soft (Marilyn Monroe-ish) voice and the character’s constant effort at poise and self-evaluation, together with Noah Oppenheim’s original screenplay, achieve the right balance between history and fancy. We come to accept the constant shifts from truth to memory to imagination. Jackie is bedeviled by both good and tragic fortune. Practicing her great-lady wiles on a reporter who is by turns obsequious and hyper-masculine (Billy Crudup), Portman’s rueful Jackie makes the Brechtian announcement: “I lost track somewhere what was real, what was performance.”

Portman reveals the anxiety behind the famous Andy Warhol lithograph, a pop image that is both blotchy and brittle. Her tiny physique often suggests girlishness, but Portman’s nervous composure when speaking before TV cameras in her famous live video tour of the White House; when she undresses out of the bloodied “little pink suit” (as it was memorably described in Altman’s Nashville); when she changes her mind about walking “with Jack” in the funeral procession — all imply a mature emotional struggle so that, even in her Valium haze, the composite image of Jackie (like Warhol’s) rouses a distanced sense of condolence and respect.

Jackie’s examination of 1960s political celebrity answers the concerns of our own era, in which sophisticates pretend sincerity and eventually betray themselves. Director Larraí​n’s previous Chilean films (Tony Manero, Post Mortem) made tangled use of identity issues and social perception for dubious political ends, but he jettisons cynicism for his first American movie. In Jackie, Larraí​n addresses without commentary the post-assassination moment that despoiled modern America’s self-image. By demystifying its sympathetic title figure (as in using the familiar, diminutive “Jackie”), this film departs from the first-lady trend of the last eight years: over-eager worship of Michelle Obama, which is a desperate ploy by our politically correct media to turn Michelle into an icon of both fine arts and fashion, a black Jackie.

During the Obama era, the biased media granted cult-celebrity to empowered politicians, helping to create a new media aristocracy that is now on the defense. With the renewed mystification of people in public service, our public figures have lost the capacity for self-awareness and self-assessment. It is Portman’s self-awareness (and her subject’s) that makes Jackie interesting. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard at his most obnoxious) tells Jackie, “Look at you! We’re ridiculous.” Then he says: “You were at the center of it all. It’s impossible to have perspective. I assure you it was a spectacle.” In these lines, we see a shift in subject (from Jackie and Bobby as political players to the funeral itself). Perhaps the move from “you” to “we” to “it” is simply Larraí​n’s mistranslation, but Bobby’s rant points out the difficulties of achieving America’s self-image, particularly as felt by those obliged to represent it. 

This insight is especially helpful now. The actor playing JFK (Casper Phillipson) quotes the exact words of JFK himself, to summarize the filmmakers’ attitude on political celebrity. Speaking to a CBS news reporter in the now famous 1962 documentary A Tour of the White house with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, JFK said:

I think anyone who comes to the White House as the president desires the best for his country. But I think he does receive stimulus from the knowledge of living in close proximity to the people who are legendary but who actually were alive and were in these rooms.

That statement goes against the Obama-era arrogance sold by trash like The Butler and Selma. But Jackie doesn’t entirely avoid sanctimony; as balm for the idol-worshippers, it ends with Jackie and JFK dancing to Richard Burton singing Camelot — a sappy way out of this film’s serious, analytic project.

*****

Adrien Brody in Come Together

So far, it seems that the best cinema this season is to be found in a four-minute advertisement by Wes Anderson titled “Come Together.” It recalls Anderson’s movie-homage 2006 American Express ad, but the current ad for the H&M retail chain is Anderson’s best work since The Darjeeling Limited. (For many feature directors, commercials provide bread-and-butter and sketch pads to test ideas — pragmatic solutions to ideological quandaries. Anderson has made more than a dozen.)

#related#Set on a train during a snow-delay detour, Come Together is a humane political allegory that responds to America’s post-election fractiousness. It’s an ad, but sells goodwill – reminding us of the beneficence that should inspire the season’s consumerism: Adrien Brody plays Conductor Ralph, who organizes festivities to unite his disparate North Pole–arized passengers. This brief tour de force revives Anderson’s color-coordinated whimsy that had lately decayed into smart-ass cynicism. Come Together is ebullient, envisioning a unified capitalist future.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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