by Robert Delany
Photo Courtesy of Facebook
Humans are mythmakers and storytellers. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Iliad, from George Washington and the cherry tree to Davey Crocket and his hat, myth has been constantly created throughout the annals of history. It is inescapable and omnipresent.
Maybe myth is a way for humans to reconcile what we do not understand about the world around us. Maybe it is a way for us to make the past more exotic and dramatic. Maybe it is a way for history to be remembered rather than forgotten.
The reasons for mythmaking are for the historians and anthropologists to uncover, not lowly film critics. However, one of the hottest films currently tackles American mythology head-on. Jackie takes aim at one of America’s most powerful families. Some even call them American royalty: the Kennedys.
Jackie, helmed by director Pablo Larrain, surrounds Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) during the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. We see Jackie experience and process the assassination in real time. She then moves onto mourning, planning an extravagant funeral and giving an interview with a reporter about her experiences before and after. It chronicles an American tragedy from her eyes.
Do not be fooled. This film is not propaganda. Jackie is not meant to put a good face on the Kennedy family. It does not try to paint Jackie Kennedy as the sympathetic widow. This film has only one goal: to bust the pervasive mythology surrounding Jackie Kennedy and JFK.
Darren Aronofsky, who directed Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, is the film's producer—so it is not surprising that it is so subversive. Aronofsky has made yet another film that systematically strives to expose the fabrication of myth.
What is interesting about this film is not the direction (which is good), the way it is shot (also fine), the way it is written (especially good) or the way it is performed (highly admirable).
Instead, it is the new perspective that the filmmakers are trying to show the public—where I think this film diverts from the normal biopic. It is rare to see a biopic that so bluntly criticizes its subject.
The film shows Jackie Kennedy not only trying to fabricate grandiose mythology surrounding her husband, but grieving more for the loss of her royal lifestyle and legacy than for the loss of her husband.
There is sequence after sequence of Jackie trying on expensive clothes, opulent jewelry, lamenting the loss of “Camelot” and the loss of royalty that her family gained by living in the White House.
In one scene, Jackie explains her reasoning for planning such an extravagant funeral to a priest by saying she was trying to elevate JFK’s accomplishments to that of Abraham Lincoln, and that she was grieving so heavily after the loss of her husband because she is losing her life as a First Lady and public celebrity. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) even shouts at Jackie for daring to compare his brother to Lincoln, saying that people will only remember their family as the “beautiful people.”
It is widely publicized that JFK had innumerable affairs while in office, that he was a partier and more a celebrity than a president. However, I have never seen such a cutting portrayal of the Kennedy family. Jackie explains in her own words that their marriage was not very intimate—that many a night, JFK would sleep in another woman’s bed and that “he would venture out into the desert alone, but he would always come home.” The film firmly establishes the marriage as more of a political façade than anything else.
This film pulls the rug out from under one of the most cherished American mythologies of the last century. It paints Jackie Kennedy as the deposed Queen of the United States, who is trying to cement her legacy with a fabricated mythology before it is swept away. It portrays the Kennedy’s relationship as a political front, not one of love and intimacy.
Overall, it is surprising that this film got made in the first place, because it is such a harsh critique of one of the most famous and powerful families in the world—although many critics are not talking about the film in this way. They are praising Portman’s performance, the pacing of the film and the raw scenes filled with emotion and grief, rather than the message the film is projecting to the world.
The Jackie filmmakers are trying to combat myth with truth, using their art as a megaphone, and succeeding wildly in doing so.