Upon first look, Jackie seems like standard issue Oscar-bait. End of the year release date? Check. Famous actress portraying historically beloved figure? Check. Exclusive screenings for the White House? Check. And though it is all of those things—along with being a great vehicle for Chilean director Pablo Larraín to showcase his chops for those unfamiliar with his Spanish-language films—upon watching the film, two things become quickly apparent: first, Jackie is one of the most artful and intriguing biopics in some time; and second, the film is far more subversive than it lets on.
The film primarily concerns itself with Jackie Kennedy’s actions in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination in Dallas. A week after JFK’s murder, we find her in Hyannis Port, sitting down for an interview to sort out and solidify her husband’s legacy. Within this frame, we see flashbacks to the events of the past few days, along with other memories of Jackie and John earlier in his presidency. These memories are presented as truth, but when the film shifts back to the Hyannis Port interview, we see Jackie insisting that the reporter (Billy Crudup) leave out certain sections and mold her memories into something far grander. At the end of the film, she ties all of this up into the Camelot narrative we now know so well. Her husband’s legacy has not simply been preserved, it has been crafted into something tremendous and almost holy. In an earlier scene, Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) laments the failure of the Kennedy administration to leave any major legacy; by the end of the film, we understand how Jackie has solidified a legacy that will live in the American imagination as something far stronger than the mixed bag that was the truth of the Kennedy presidency.
I live in Boston; outside of Tom Brady and David Ortiz, John F. Kennedy is probably the most ubiquitous face in the city. There are signs on small streets in Brookline pointing the way to the humble house where he was born. An enormous walkway in one of Logan Airport’s terminals features huge banners advertising Kennedy’s Presidential Library, complete with nonstop audio of some of the president’s most uplifting speeches. The Camelot myth, even after all this time, is alive and well.
Of course, we also know that the Camelot story is, for lack of a better word, a lie. Kennedy’s Presidency had its highs (the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and lows (the Bay of Pigs invasion, which helped set the stage for the Missile Crisis). He and Jackie may have presented the veneer of a fairy tale marriage, but we also know about Kennedy’s affairs. This is not to discredit JFK or imply that his presidency was a failure; it is merely to say that the truth is always more complicated than the simple story, though the simple story is usually easier, and much more desirable. Most recent former presidents have some form of personal Camelot—a façade that simplifies the ups and downs, dirty work, and more technical successes that mark any presidency. Jackie, and Jackie herself, may show the starting point of this mythmaking, but Camelot-ing is hardly reserved solely for the Kennedy family.
When Jackie was written, sent into production, filmed, and set for release, there was obviously no way to know how the 2016 election would turn out. At many stages of its creation, the candidates were unknown, and the tenor of the election—which had all the prettiness of a nuclear waste disaster at a shelter for abused animals—was something that pundits could only dream of. But now here the film is, after an election between the two most disliked candidates in modern political history. That Trump won, and more specifically, that a Democrat lost, means the film has also arrived at a time when the country is trying to decide how to properly remember the Obama years, as the incoming administration prepares to oppose or undo many of his signature policies. As he prepares to leave, Obama has some of the highest approval ratings of his two terms, and many are looking at the Obamas’ time in the White House as a sort of second Camelot, a time of dignity, respect, and progress.
This is, of course, an oversimplification of gargantuan proportions, and reveals the problem with Camelot-ing a presidency as a whole. Obama has done a lot of good things—he’s championed social justice and equal rights for minority groups, pushed hard for common-sense gun reform, taken climate change seriously, and conducted himself with dignity and a refreshing calm. He has also dramatically expanded the United States extrajudicial assassination program via drone warfare, conducted mass deportations, and approved off-the-books operations to reign hell on Syria and Yemen (as documented in Jeremy Scahill’s supremely reported documentary, Dirty Wars). It is a natural tendency for many of us, liberal and otherwise, to want keep Obama in a Camelot-sized bubble. When the incoming president can’t make it through an episode of Saturday Night Live without getting riled up about being mocked, it’s genuinely refreshing to see Obama spend the annual turkey pardon rattling off bad one-liners and owning it. He, much like JFK, seems like a genuinely likable, good guy, with a genuinely likable family. The urge to believe in an Obama Camelot is understandable, but it must be resisted.
If Jackie tells us anything, it is that these myths are carefully constructed, and that while we may want to believe in them, once they’re established, it is very hard to sift through what is real and what is fake without upsetting the legacies of canonized men. Reagan is lionized by both parties, but he also oversaw the Iran-Contra scandal, reacted disastrously to the crack epidemic, and laughed off the AIDS crisis because of his view on homosexuals. Bill Clinton is now regarded as an untouchable statesmen and man of dignity, but we shouldn’t forget his exploitation of cheap labor through free trade agreements, pathetic endorsements of the death penalty and heavier policing to score political points, and the long string of sexual abuse claims that have followed him since his days in Little Rock. Likewise, we must remember Obama as both presidents—the one who resuscitated the economy, expanded health care coverage and fought for LBGTQ+ rights, as well as the one who never closed Guantanamo, provided the Saudis with weaponry used to commit war crimes, and led one of the most secretive administrations in modern times. Already we have seen a romantic comedy about the Obama’s marriage (Southside with You), and Netflix has a biopic about the commander-in-chief’s college years (Barry); these may be fine works of art in their own right, but they are also participating in a sort of mythmaking of a man who hasn't even left office yet. To give in to the mythology of a Camelot for Obama—or any president—is to simplify a legacy that cannot be made into a series of happy anecdotes. These are men who shape history; they make decisions that save and take lives, sometimes in the same moment. None of them leave office without some stain on them. We would do well to remember that, but it’s easier, and far more palatable, to forget.
“People like to believe in fairy tales,” Jackie says. She clarifies: “I believe that the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us.” Jackie shows us how and why this happens. People care about legacy, they care about their loved ones and heroes being remembered. But we, the public, are also eager for the easy story, the happy ending, the good-bad binary that defines too many presidencies without digging into the details. Camelot is a beautiful idea, a romantic and noble notion. But it is a fiction, a lie. Jackie wants to make sure we don’t forget that.