“Like so many women in history, Jackie has never really gotten her proper due. She’s been portrayed mainly for her style and elegance, but she deserves more credit for her exceptional understanding of image, public relations and really creating the idea of Camelot after JFK’s death.”
Jackie Kennedy led a multi-faceted life of power and influence, but when it came to writing about her, screenwriter and journalist Noah Oppenheim came to feel there was one story that spoke to her psyche in the most compelling way – the very brief but remarkably consequential days that the First Lady spent nearly alone in the White House following her husband’s death.
JACKIE takes audiences on a personal journey into one of the most extraordinary events of American history – and also into a deeply stirring drama that illuminates in fascinating new ways the woman, the times and the ways we cope with and tell the stories of the most intensely public of tragedies.
At the start of November 22nd, 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy was among the most famed, admired and envied figures in the world. As the elegant, stylish and alluring wife of the youngest-ever elected President of the United States, she was also the first First Lady of the televised age… photogenic, captivating and yet barely-known beneath her near-mythical image of grace, youth and idealism.
Yet, within hours, Jackie’s world, along with the faith of the nation, would be shaken from their foundations when John F. Kennedy was struck down by assassin’s bullets while riding at Jackie’s side in a motorcade parade through Dallas. In a moment rife with confusion and shock, the world witnessed the First Lady’s composed grief in images that remain as poignant and mesmerizing as ever.
But what no one saw is what went on behind closed doors in Jackie’s private, tightly-contained world. Suddenly alone, save for her family, confidante and priest, the First Lady faced a remarkable series of challenges as a wife, a mother and a reluctant part of the political machine: consoling her young children, planning her husband’s funeral, preparing for the next President to rapidly move into the White House and most remarkably, fighting to maintain control over how history would forever define her husband’s legacy.
In a period of just a week, this fiercely private woman had to face unthinkable personal loss, hard political realities, a nation in the throes of a collective trauma and — amid all the uncertainty, Washington machinery and public scrutiny — the responsibility of keeping alive all that her husband wanted to stand for in America. Though today he is among the most beloved of U.S. Presidents, JFK’s legacy was hardly assured upon his death. He had spent just 2 years and 9 months in office, and the fear among those closest to him was that all he aimed for would be forgotten because the potential had gone unfulfilled. In the midst of her own anguish, Jackie steeled herself with a single-minded mission: to tell her husband’s story in a way that it would always be remembered, as brief but shining moment of American promise.
That week was a period of time, felt Oppenheim, that defined not only the icon Jackie would become but the beginnings of our image-saturated culture in ways that haven’t really been explored.
“Like so many women in history, Jackie has never really gotten her proper due. She’s been portrayed mainly for her style and elegance, but she deserves more credit for her exceptional understanding of image, public relations and really creating the idea of Camelot after JFK’s death,” says Oppenheim.
“When I read about that single week in 1963 — when she had to console two grief-stricken children, deal with moving out of what was really her only home, contemplate a whole different life moving forward, and at the same time had one last shot to solidify her husband’s legacy — it was extraordinary. I couldn’t imagine a more revealing moment to explore one of the most interesting women of the last century.”
Oppenheim cut his teeth in the world of news and politics, serving as Senior Vice President of NBC News — where he often talked about Kennedy’s impact with fellow journalist and Kennedy biographer Chris Matthews — and a senior producer of the “Today Show.” He’s also the co-author of the bestseller The Intellectual Devotional: American History, a compendium of wisdom from American historical figures. Naturally, he dove with relish into the research, poring through the endless archives amassed about the Kennedy family and the short-lived but endlessly influential administration.
But research could only take him so far in his efforts to recreate the voice, personality and often-obscured emotions of Jackie.
“The blessing of writing about someone like Jackie is that there’s an overwhelming amount of information about who she was, how she behaved, the timeline of her life,” he admits. “This preponderance of information about her life enabled me to root her in reality, but it also provided me an opportunity to ask questions and use my imagination to fully breath life into her on the page. Because I had this wealth of research, I was freed creatively and was able to dig deeper and explore her beyond the bounds of the facts I was able to ground her in.”
As he researched and wrote, Oppenheim felt very strongly that he was writing a story not of the past, but one that resonates fully with today’s world — a story about a woman who in many ways was the first in Presidential history to forge the idea of leaving behind a visual legacy that lives forever.
“Jackie Kennedy’s story speaks to us today for several reasons,” says Oppenheim. “For one thing, it harkens back to a time when politics had a certain dignity to it, when we all admired the people who occupied the White House. I also think Jackie was sort of the first American queen, someone who showed us what it is to have the noblest grace under fire. And I think this is a time when people are desperately trying to cut through the fog surrounding what’s true and what’s not in our world — so it is a ripe time to explore how public figures craft their images and create mythologies around themselves.”
Noah Oppenheim was immediately impressed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín. “Working with Pablo has been an incredibly gratifying collaboration,” Oppenheim states. He brought a really unique point of view to the material and he challenged me to push further in terms of exploring Jackie’s humanity and the contradictory sides to her personality. The script just kept getting better and better as we worked together.”
“In the beginning all that I knew about Jackie was really quite superficial,” Larraín notes. “I knew her as the woman always seen in pictures next to JFK, the woman known for her fashion, taste and style. I think that’s how most people know her in America and around the world. But I wanted to change up that point-ofview and dig further. The more I looked, the more I found a woman who was very sophisticated, very smart and who had an incredible political sense of her own. Most importantly, she was a woman who understood communication in a way very few people did in those times.”
Larraín also became fascinated, and moved, by the way Jackie allowed herself to become a kind of conduit for the public’s collective feelings of anguish and doubt in the wake of the only Presidential assassination of the 20th Century. “The United Stated never has had royalty and yet in that moment, Jackie became like a queen without a throne, a mother to a nation in mourning,” the director observes. “She shouldered all their sorrow and pain even as she was enduring so much grief and shock herself. She put it all on her back and she pushed on. She couldn’t have planned for these events, yet when the moment came, she carried herself with such grace and extraordinary love.”
During that turbulent week, Jackie unwittingly built a reputation as someone as courageous and beloved as her husband, planning his funeral to become a strikingly grand national catharsis. “That was not her intention — to make herself an icon,” observes Larraín. “But in trying to protect her husband’s legacy, she became one. There was a gap between her objective and the actual result which is one of many things I found interesting to explore in this story.”
Larraín was also compelled by the idea of mixing and matching historic events that are well documented — the Dallas motorcade, Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in to the Presidency on Air Force One, JFK’s grand state funeral and final burial in Arlington National Cemetery beside an eternal flame — with the moments no one can ever document and can only be daringly imagined. It was Larraín’s idea to incorporate the 1962 television show, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” — broadcast on Valentine’s Day and seen by over 56 million viewers — into the narrative. Taking unprecedented advantage of television’s new Golden Age, Jackie had invited America and the world into the newly renovated White House in a way that was both public and personal, and in a way that seemed to form a bookend with her more somber public appearances after JFK’s death.”
Larraín gives a boldly unconventional spin to the biopic genre, mixing historical footage with complete fictional re-creations, and excavating just one critical moment in Jackie’s life, but in all its intricately woven layers. Meanwhile, Portman explores the haunting territory of a woman juggling her incomprehensibly vast yet contained sorrow with a world watching, remembering and making meaning out of her every move. The result is an intimate portrait, yet one of epic themes, that provides a portrait of Jackie as we’ve not seen her: a deeply human, vulnerable woman confronted at once with the power of loss, love, self-preservation, public consciousness and history.
Natalie Portman knew this role would be her greatest challenge — and a heavy responsibility given the realities of Kennedy’s life and place in history. But Portman had instant faith in the script. She was attracted to the idea that what was going on inside Jackie was so much more than was ever seen in the public eye; that she was a woman whose profound understanding of what lasts and what matters most anchored her in solid steel when she would have been forgiven for falling to pieces.
“I thought Noah Oppenheim’s approach in the script was really smart — he took this one short piece of Jackie’s life, this incredibly traumatic event, and excavated it for how Jackie composed herself in front of the world while dealing with everything that was happening to her privately,” says Portman. “We’ve mostly known Jackie as an almost unapproachable icon, as someone we’ve seen as a facade, not ever as a real human, so I love that this story gives you new insight into her humanity.”
To give audiences that fresh insight into a woman renown for her stoicism, Portman had to plunge into two twined sides of Jackie: the masked and the unmasked, each with its own challenges. “Jackie was not very forthcoming about her emotions, so I really explored that idea with Pablo,” Portman says. “We both were completely open to trying anything the other brought up. It was exciting because there was no wall put up as to what was the right way to approach her. It was really a path of discovery for me, because it’s such an unimaginably horrific situation Jackie went through — and there were so many different reactions that were possible and human.”