Why a ‘true version of events’ is hard to judge. Film review of ‘Jackie’.

Have just caught up with the recent film “Jackie” a portrayal by Natalie Portman of Jacqueline Kennedy in the weeks immediately after her husband’s assassination.
It’s a powerful and thought-provoking portrayal of grief but it’s also a story about how we construct stories.

There are several ways in to this story: firstly we see the black-and-white footage of a documentary made by the First Lady about the changes she made in the White House. She became an avid collector of furniture and memorabilia connected to previous presidents particularly Abraham Lincoln. So we see her reconstructing her environment to re-frame the stories of past presidents. As we cut between the resulting documentary and the film which include scenes of making the documentary, we meet the close friend and confidante whose role seems to be to help her to remember to put on her smile like a mask.

Secondly the film is interspersed with confidential conversations between Jackie and catholic priest in which she is processing her grief, anger and the motives for her decisions in the immediate aftermath of her loss. In these scenes we presume that we are getting closer to the ‘truth’ of her personality and her marriage. This story contains hints that all was not well with her marriage and that she felt herself to be inadequate to the task of being a “Kennedy wife”.

Thirdly, the whole story is framed by a series of conversations which Jackie is having with a journalist. She has invited this journalist to write an article giving her side of the story, not just the story of the assassination but the story of their life together in the White House. They speak together in the fairly immediate aftermath of her moving out of the White House. jackie Although she speaks candidly to this journalist, she also has complete editorial control over what is finally published. So in a very real way she is picking and choosing how she wants to be represented. For example “the First Lady does not smoke” whereas in reality we see Jackie virtually chain-smoking and also being heavily dependent on medication.

Natalie Portman does a fantastic job of portraying a steely fragility. Here is a woman who is been completely undone by the events that have just unfolded and yet she still finds the strength to ensure that their story is told in the way that she wishes it to be: that their time together in the White House was a joyful “Camelot”, a precious two years of possibility and hope.

And in between these three layers, we follow the story, not necessarily in chronological order, of the doomed trip to Dallas and its immediate aftermath. Quite rightly the story does not dwell overly on that aspect because pretty much everyone knows that story, instead “Jackie” is the internal story of one woman’s response, not simply to that trauma but also to the other major events and losses in her life.

Although it’s a slow film which doesn’t really come together until the end it’s one that I found myself thinking about for some time afterwards. It’s not just the story about how a public figure handles their image but it’s also an intriguing reflection on how each and every one of us projects a preferred version of ourselves whilst inwardly wrestling with our own mixed motives and conflicting emotions.

More than anything this film shows us that truth is not an account of what actually happened, but truth becomes the story that we tell ourselves about the thing that actually happened. Its also the story about how hard it is to hold ourselves together when the gap between who we are inwardly and who we are outwardly becomes too great.

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