Trauma, Trump, and Jackie

Posted 23 January 2017


The last six months have seen victories for both Brexit and Trump. Their dual triumphs were a shock to the Western world, and prompted spikes in racially motivated hate crimes. Trump’s victory not only enflamed bigotry, but his history of sexual assault meant that his was a win for the misogyny engrained in Western culture. For many, both events are inextricably tied to collective trauma, as long-held assumptions about society were shattered. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach wrote in The Guardian that for a week after the referendum “every therapy session has started with Brexit.” The associations with everyday racism and misogyny make the pain of these events more personal and keenly felt. Against this milieu, Pablo Larraín’s latest film Jackie takes on an unpleasant, yet necessary relevance.

Jackie zeroes in on another case of collective trauma: the JFK assassination. Rather than tell a conspiracy thriller about “the truth” like Oliver Stone did with JFK in 1991, Larraín paints a more humanistic picture by framing the event through the widowed eyes of Jacqueline Kennedy. She is being interviewed for a magazine article mere days after her husband’s funeral. For her, it is the final chance to construct her late-husband’s legacy. Jackie’s self-imposed role as curator is emphasised through flashbacks of her filming the walking tour documentary of the White House in 1962. The film also fleetingly uses flashbacks to November 22nd. However, the main thrust of the plot comes from Jackie's battle to organise her husband’s state funeral, a struggle which reflects her own damaged faith in God.

Natalie Portman delivers one of her best performances here. No mere act of imitation, her turn as Jackie is layered. Like Jackie, Lincoln and Selma both depict iconic American historical figures and de-sanitise them. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King are shown to achieve their noble aspirations through shrewd manipulation. Similarly, Jackie’s curatorial role forces her to unleash a quiet viciousness. Beneath her demure, former debutante shell is a wilful strategist, which is clearly seen in her scenes with Billy Crudup as the interviewer. Usually canny, shrewd women like Jackie are depicted negatively on screen, but Portman and Larraín aren’t interested in making her more palatable to audiences. Here is a woman who has gone through real horror, who doesn’t care about being likeable.

In order to represent trauma, the film subverts the conventions of the inspirational biopic genre, most noticeably through Mica Levi’s score. She creates a disquieting soundscape, similar to her phenomenal score for Under the Skin. Here her work is even more unnerving, because it invades the typically middlebrow space of the inspirational biopic. The unease provoked by Levi’s score perfectly complement the unconventional portrayal of the 1960s.

When films portray the past, they tend to emphasise how different it is to our present. If the historical period is a decade in the 20th century, then pop-culture references will be utilised, often as a vehicle for nostalgia. Remember how ‘Mr. Sandman’ plays when Marty McFly enters 1955 Hill Valley in Back to the Future. The film reminds its 1985 audience of a time when Raegan was a movie actor and not the president. For a completely different portrayal of the 1950s, one need only turn to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Here, pop culture is entirely absent and historical difference is explicitly de-emphasised as the protagonist recalls his 1950s childhood. With Jackie, Larraín emulates Malick in conceiving 1960s America. The camera lingers a little too close to its characters, and the editing fragments reality, emphasising the subjective experience of memory. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way Larraín shoots the JFK assassination. Rather than replicate the iconic Zapruder film, Larraín makes it personal to Jackie’s subjective experience. Shot from inside the car, everything is too close, too loud. Only fleetingly glimpsed at various points in the film, Jackie’s memories of the assassination are too painful to recall.

While the flashbacks of Jackie may understate the 1960s setting, it exhibits nostalgia, albeit of a different flavour. Rather than harking back to a form of historical reality, Jackie wraps itself in myth. Roman vases pervade the film, and shots of the landscape, particularly in the cemetery, evoke popular imaginings of Ancient Greece. This use of classical imagery, mixed with Levi’s ultra-modern music lend the film a queasy grandeur.

The classical period also links itself with the myth of King Arthur. Jackie invoked the image of Camelot to cement the Kennedy legacy. Drawing on a Broadway musical written by one of Kennedy’s contemporaries at Harvard, she stated: “There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.” It’s the same feeling of loss one might get from looking at the photo of Obama shaking Donald Trump’s hand the day after the election, or any number of photos from the 2016 campaign trail.

Despite it being his first American film, Jackie covers familiar thematic ground for Larraín. In his native Chile, the director made a trilogy of films about the brutal Pinochet dictatorship; memories of which still haunt the country to this day. In 1973, amid a CIA-backed military coup, the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende committed suicide. To this day, there is still uncertainty as to whether it was suicide or assassination. In his 2010 film Post-mortem, Larraín depicts Allende’s autopsy in an excruciating scene, where the medical staff must keep their composure in front of their new militarist leaders. “It was pretty shocking for everybody” Larraín said about shooting that scene, “mostly for the older people, some of whom had actually met Allende. There was a very powerful, very interesting feeling that day.”

Such a feeling hangs over Jackie. Beneath all the real-life horror that Brexit and Trump have wrought, there’s that same underlying strangeness. Remain and Clinton seemed so secure not so long ago. Now, like the Kennedy administration, those securities have been snatched away. In Jackie, we see a woman reeling from trauma that is felt both on a national and international level. Just as she attempts to carve out the history she wants, we too must think about what Brexit and Trump will mean. Like Jackie we must fight to recover our faith, and our history.

Joe Brennan

Joe Brennan is an MA student and film writer in Edinburgh. Read more posts by Joe Brennan


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