On December 25, 1997, Wag the Dog hit cinemas – chronicling spin doctors’ attempts to distract the electorate from an unfolding sex scandal. Only weeks later, the name Monica Lewinsky became ubiquitous in lounge rooms across America.
Jackie, not only chronicling the most tumultuous week in the life of former first-lady Jackie Kennedy but the evolving myth of John F. Kennedy’s short Presidency, affectionately referred to throughout as ‘Camelot,’ may just be the best timed political drama of the past 20 years. Released weeks before ‘Fake News’ became the word of the year and amidst highly divisive rhetoric surrounding truth in politics, Jackie’s (Natalie Portman) supposition that what is written down, and only what is written down, becomes ever-lasting truth, a world-view repeated many times throughout its run, whether purposeful or fortuitous hits a very raw nerve as the real-life status quo dramatically shifts in Washington.
It’s current relevance aside, Jackie rises and falls on Portman’s performance and she delivers, mimicking the First Lady’s heavy whisper to a tee and too steering clear from over-dramatizing one of the most dramatic and shocking episodes in recent political memory. Everyone else may as well be wallpaper compared to the pride of place Portman’s proffered throughout the film – with Billy Crudup’s one-note reporter and John Hurt’s sympathetic Priest largely present to allow Portman to express the range of Jackie’s anguish.
Greta Gerwig (White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman), Richard E. Grant (Kennedy confidante Bill Walton), and John Carroll Lynch (Lyndon Johnson), all talented performers who make the best of their short screen time are barely there long enough to register, while Peter Sarsgaard manages to carve out his own little space in the film as Bobby Kennedy, having to contend with a furious widow, political demands and his own grief at the loss of his elder brother.
This is Portman’s film however, made all the better by the repository of archive footage, use of 16mm and a much gritter look more accustomed to the time, better situating us in the middle of the action all those years ago. The day of the assassination itself, told through flashbacks, is sparing and never gratuitous if graphic, fitting with the overall dignified tenor of the film and its central figure.
While Jackie may overplay its political undertones in its later stages, the moments of Jackie telling the journalist not to report what she “didn’t say” or demanding a Lincoln-esque funeral for the President who, as is pointedly illustrated, only served 2 years, 10 months and 2 days, are a masterclass in both historical and political drama.
Worth seeing for its thrilling perspective and relevance, old and new, Jackie might just take something you thought you knew very well and cause you to look at it very differently.
Jackie is in cinemas now