“Do you know who James Garfield was?”
“Do you know who William McKinley was?”
The driver of the ambulance car carrying the body of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy knows neither.
“How about Abraham Lincoln?”
“He won the Civil War and abolished slavery.”
Jackie Kennedy, still in shock, turns away and closes the hatch. She looks to Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), sat beside her. “Tomorrow we must find all of the books accounting for Lincoln’s funeral.” As she alludes many times in Jackie, director Pablo Larraín’s titular ode to the most renowned First Lady, she has a great respect for history.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is one of the most notable and shocking events of the 20th century. Young, handsome and Catholic, Kennedy inspired strong fervour and contention due to his Cold War relations and subsequent quest for space. Along with his wife Jackie, the couple were regarded by the media as celebrities, being treated much in the manner of how popstars are in the present.
Born to a Wall Street broker and a socialite, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) appears uniquely predisposed to such attention. Regarded as an icon of style during and after her time as First Lady, Kennedy welcomed the public into her’s and her husband’s lives, forging a connection between the Presidential couple and American citizens. That connection soon turned to a thirst thanks to the likes of television and transparency, the Kennedys breaking down the barrier between office and public with their infamous 1962 tour of a restored White House; Jackie’s passion project.
A keen writer and reporter in her time before marriage and then a student of American History in the early years after, her love of literature and – most importantly – tradition centred her time in the White House and later life. The restoration of the White House was undertaken to regain historical pieces that had been removed from the mansion upon the departure of each successive president. Kennedy went on to coin a Congressional bill and founded a collection of trusts and committees declaring historical items property of the Smithsonian Institute, and therefore not fit for private acquisition.
Segmented between the sombre recount of President Kennedy’s death and subsequent aftermath, the televised CBS News tour shows a different Jackie: younger, more amiable, a deer caught in the headlights of the world – one that she has courted. By jarring comparison, the woman that exists following the assassination is harshly resolute and single-minded, an air of emotional detachment shrouding her person. She fixates on giving her late husband the remembrance he deserves, an unshakable drive to cement his place in both American and world history, all whilst living in paranoia of her son and daughter being taken from her along with her husband and two children.
“When something is written down, does that make it true?” Kennedy asks of the journalist (supposedly Theodore H. White of Life magazine) as he tries to lift the veil on the woman who aired her grief for the world to see. Her being interviewed is another attempt to keep her husband alive in the thoughts of her still captive audience: if a person’s name continues to be spoken, do they ever really die? In cementing the memory of President Kennedy, she is also solidifying that of herself. “You understand I will be editing this conversation,” Kennedy says. “Just in case I don’t say exactly what I mean?” The journalist complies, begrudgingly.
As Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant) once said to Kennedy, “People need their history… They need to know real men actually lived [at the White House]. Not ghosts and storybook legends – people who faced adversity and overcame it.” But who gets to decide what is history and what is fiction? Is history not, after all, the fiction of the victor in war? In taking charge of media canon, Kennedy ensured the public perception of her husband and his presidency was largely one of her creation and not one of those intent on smearing his name.
“There won’t be another Camelot,” states Jackie of the Kennedy term in office, comparing that brief tenure to the fantasy Kingdom, one that had been snatched from her before its time. To her, this period – though marred by personal tragedy – was one of novelistic quality, a skewed narrative of which she chose to indulge.
Fiction or history, to Jackie Kennedy, legacy is all that matters.