The Horror of ‘Jackie’: One of the ‘Darkest’ Weeks in American History
In the new film Jackie, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim gives us a new perspective on that tragic week in 1963.
Just one week after John F. Kennedy was assassinated next to her in Dallas, Jacqueline Kennedy summoned a journalist to her family’s home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, and single-handedly created the mythology of the Kennedys as America’s “Camelot.”
In Jackie, a new film out this week, Natalie Portman delivers a stunning performance as the former first lady, grappling with the aftermath of her husband’s death in the days that followed. The journalist, played by Billy Crudup, goes unnamed. Their interview becomes a framing device for the narrative, which is no surprise given that the film’s screenwriter, Noah Oppenheim, just happens to run the Today show in his spare time.
Oppenheim wrote Jackie on spec about six years ago after leaving his role as a senior producer on the NBC morning show to try his hand at Hollywood, going on to write adaptations of the young adult books The Maze Runner and Allegiant. “When I sat down to try to write a film, I had this idea in the back of my head that there was a great untold story in Jackie Kennedy,” he tells The Daily Beast by phone from New York. He had seen her portrayed on television and in film numerous times, but the focus had always been on “her beauty, her sense of style, her elegance, her marriage and all its complexities.”
“I didn’t feel like anyone had given her her proper due for the substantive role that she played in crafting the mythology of her husband’s presidency,” he continues. It was only when he delved deep into researching those first days after the assassination that he discovered she was the one who coined the “Camelot” reference. “I had assumed that the Kennedy administration had always been referred to that way,” he says. “So I was sort of stunned to realize that actually that analogy had been made after, and that she had done it—and that she had done it during this extraordinarily intense period of time when she was dealing with the murder of her husband.”
In real life, that interview in Hyannisport was conducted by Theodore H. White for LIFE magazine. Borrowing the words from that 1960 Broadway musical, she told him of her husband’s presidency, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” She then added, “There’ll never be another Camelot again.” As Crudup’s journalist does in the film, White dictated the story to his editor over the phone in Jackie’s kitchen as she stood nearby and listened. “Quite inadvertently, I was her instrument in labeling the myth,” White wrote in a memoir years later.
Oppenheim says Crudup is playing a “composite” character of a handful of different journalists and historians Jackie spoke to over the years following her husband’s death. “It’s not meant to depict any one person, per se, but to reflect the fact that throughout her life, whenever she would speak to journalists or biographers, she would often exercise a high degree of control over those conversations,” he says. “There are transcripts of people that she spoke to where she would redact certain sections, ask that the recording be turned off. That kind of interplay between the journalist and her in the film is inspired by all of that.”
The film, exquisitely directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, imagines what was in “those redacted spaces,” for instance when Jackie delivers an emotionally rich description to the journalist of what it sounded like when the bullet hit her husband’s skull. As soon as she finishes speaking, she casually tells him he’s not allowed to use anything she has just said—or else.
“I have always been struck as a journalist by the enormous gap that often exists between the public figures that I have come to know in my job, who they are as people behind closed doors, and then how they are perceived by the public,” Oppenheim says of his years as a television news producer. “There’s often an extraordinary disconnect. Some of that is by design and some of it isn’t. So that idea that people have multiple identities, multiple faces that they present to the world based on the circumstances that they’re in, is something I’ve always found interesting.”
When one thinks of this “disconnect” between a public and private persona, another former first lady inevitably comes to mind: Hillary Clinton. But due to his “day job” with the Today show, Oppenheim is extremely hesitant to address any current political figures—whether it is Clinton, who transformed the role of first lady, or the Obama family, who have probably come closer than any others to disproving Jackie’s claim that there will never be “another Camelot.” And he definitely does not want to talk about what kind of first lady he expects Melania Trump to be. “I am not going anywhere near that one,” he says, laughing.
With Jackie, Oppenheim and Larraín aimed to lift the veil and take the viewer inside what it was like to be the outgoing first lady in that week after the assassination.
“It was an exceptionally rich period to focus on because it shows somebody going through the most intense crucible imaginable,” Oppenheim says. “She watched her husband get murdered beside her. She has to go home and shepherd two children through the tragedy of losing their father. She herself is suffering from what I’m sure we would call PTSD today. She was showered in her husband’s blood and was directly adjacent to him in the line of fire herself. She’s got to move out of her house. She’s got to plan a state funeral and the eyes of the entire world are on her throughout this.”
Speaking to Matt Lauer on the Today show this week, Natalie Portman said she thought it was “really smart” for Oppenheim to focus the film on just those seven days following the assassination because it gives the viewer a “microcosm of who she was as a person to see her in this incredibly pressured situation.” Through all of that, Portman says Jackie had the “presence of mind” to stay in the blood-stained outfit she was wearing in the car so that people could see the reality of what had happened. “They were offering to take off this bloody suit and she said, no, everyone should see what this is.”
Jackie’s refusal to change her clothes before facing the press makes the quiet scene later in the film when she finally does strip down and take a shower, her husband’s blood pouring down her back and into the drain, all the more cathartic. She emerges from that shower a changed woman—a widow who will stop at nothing to protect her husband’s legacy.
When he was writing the screenplay, Oppenheim says he only had the real Jackie Kennedy’s image in his head, but as soon as he was finished he started thinking about actresses who “could possibly play this complicated and difficult” role. It was a very short list and Natalie Portman was at the top. “She is the dream scenario for any writer,” he says. “She’s as talented a performer as there is working today.”
“She captures Jackie’s mystery, her elegance. She captures the co-existence of fragility and strength that was constantly at play in Jackie,” Oppenheim adds of Portman. “She captures the nuance of the different faces that Jackie presented,” whether she is interacting with an old friend like her White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman, played by Greta Gerwig in the film, or going to battle with the men who come into the White House to run the Johnson administration over the way she wants her husband to be remembered.
This question of legacy plagues both Jackie and Peter Sarsgaard’s Bobby Kennedy in the film, who speculates about whether his brother will be remembered for stopping the Cuban Missile Crisis or creating it. Instead of allowing grief to paralyze her, Jackie works tirelessly to replicate the grand procession held for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral as a means of securing her husband’s status in the presidential pantheon.
The producers have reached out to Caroline Kennedy, who is portrayed as a resilient six-year-old girl in Jackie, and the other surviving members of the Kennedy family with invitations to watch the film, but so far they have stayed away. “I don’t know that they will, but we are obviously very sensitive to it,” Oppenheim says.
As for Jackie Kennedy, who passed away more than two decades ago, he says he hopes that she would have sensed the “affection and reverence” that he had for her when he was writing it. “The film depicts one of the darkest periods in American history and during that time she put the grief of the entire country on her shoulders and she helped carry us through it,” he adds. “It was nothing short of heroic the way she conducted herself that week.”
One scene that may take on a new dimension in the viewer’s imagination is the assassination itself, which is displayed in graphic close-up late in the film. Whereas most viewers will have seen the iconic Zapruder film, which depicts the assassination from a grainy distance, never before has anyone seen the killing of Kennedy as it appears here. Oppenheim says he wanted to show that moment from Jackie’s perspective within the moving car to “try to give the audience a sense of what she had endured.”
“Obviously, we can never completely convey that horror,” he says. “But in order to understand the extraordinary strength that it took her to get through that week, I think it’s important that people experience that moment from her perspective.”
Experiencing the horror of that moment with Jackie makes it all the more remarkable that, in Oppenheim’s words, she had “the presence of mind to navigate this complicated transition of power that was taking place, make sure that the funeral reflected the level of majesty and respect and esteem that she felt her husband deserved, and then also to summon this journalist and come up with this ‘Camelot’ idea.” Perhaps most remarkable of all: she was just 34 years old at the time.
“John F. Kennedy was president for a very short period of time. And I think most historians would be hard-pressed to make a long list of things that he accomplished while he was in office,” Oppenheim says. “And yet despite that, he consistently ranks in polls at the top of the most admired presidents. His legacy is incredibly powerful still to this day. The ‘Camelot’ mythology is as strong as it’s ever been. Insofar as Jackie was setting out to make sure her husband wasn’t forgotten and was thought of in the same lofty terms as Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, she succeeded.”