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‘Jackie’: Pablo Larrain Brings First Lady Story to Screen at Right Time

Variety logo Variety 1/6/2017 Tim Gray
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Jackie” began years ago, but its late-2016 debut makes this the right film at the right time.

The Fox Searchlight release looks at Jacqueline Kennedy in the week after her husband’s 1963 assassination. It’s about a woman trying to hold herself, her family, and the nation together, while working to define her husband’s legacy. It’s basically an emotional journey but the film has an added poignancy now: During a national crisis, with the world’s spotlight on her, here was someone in D.C. who was classy, private, and exhibited model behavior. After the past year, this all seems like science fiction, but it’s an important reminder of the not too distant past.

The project started with Noah Oppenheim, and is the first script from this veteran newsman (who is senior VP of NBC News and runs the “Today” show).

Oppenheim says, “I always look for a side to a story that’s never been told. There’s no more familiar story, to Americans at least, than the Kennedy assassination. [Jackie] has been peripheral in most stories.”

Darren Aronofsky got the script and talked with his “Black Swan” star Natalie Portman. When Aronofsky saw the 2015 “The Club,” he knew Pablo Larraín was the right director; the Chilean filmmaker agreed on condition that Portman starred.

Also on board was producer Juan de Dios Larraín, his brother; the two had collaborated on many other film projects, including the 2012 Oscar-nominated “No” and the December release “Neruda.” They create political films with a distinctive point of view. And they retain final cut of their projects.

Pablo Larraín told Variety, “The Warren Report describes the assassination of President Kennedy very graphically, and then it ends with a sentence ‘Jacqueline Kennedy, 34 years old, was sitting next to him.’ We took the same story but asked, ‘What if he was sitting next to her?’ She was only 34 and alone, so what was all of that like? We of course had a lot of respect for Jackie, and we were fascinated by this woman who created such brightness in such dark circumstances.”

The director suggested a key addition to the script: Inclusion of the 1962 CBS special, “A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy.” Television was still a newish medium, but she understood its power to reach people. So the filmmakers re-created moments of the tour, along with backstage footage, all of it intercut with actual scenes from the original show.

The production filmed for 10 days in D.C. Otherwise, “Jackie” was filmed in Paris, where a team of artisans re-created the Kennedy era, including cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (who also shot this year’s “Captain Fantastic” and “Elle”); costume designer Madeline Fontaine, production designer Jean Rambasse, and editor Sebastián Sepúlveda.

Oppenheim says when he was researching the project, he came upon another example of Jacqueline Kennedy’s savvy: Connecting the JFK administration with “Camelot.”

JFK was in office less than three years, and his widow was determined his presidency wouldn’t be forgotten. She reached out to a journalist, unnamed in the film, but in fact it was Theodore White of Life, to talk, a week after the president’s death.

Oppenheim says, “She had the presence of mind to realize this was her last shot to determine how he would be remembered. She could have listed his policy accomplishments. She could have said, ‘He saved the world from nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis.’ Instead, she referenced a Broadway musical and an Arthurian legend, and that’s what has stuck with the public for decades. She understood the power of this reference.”

As the former first lady says in the film, “Jack wasn’t naive, but he had ideals. Ideals he could rally others to believe in.”

To her, that’s what made it Camelot. And that’s why the message is a timely reminder in 2017.

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