‘Jackie’ screenwriter humanizes an icon

Noah Oppenheim's and Pablo Larraín's film creates a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Dec 14, 2016 at 12:20 pm

click to enlarge Natalie Portman has received praise as Jacqueline Kennedy. - Photo: Pablo LarraÍn/Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Photo: Pablo LarraÍn/Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Natalie Portman has received praise as Jacqueline Kennedy.
In Jackie, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, working with Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, dares to document one of the signature moments in the 20th century — the seven days following the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. 

But how do we — more to the point, how can we — truly “see” an iconic figure like Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy onscreen? She’s beyond larger-than-life; it seems impossible to gaze at any reflection of her without searing our collective cultural retinas, even for those of us who were not alive during her tragically brief time as our nation’s First Lady. 

I point this out while considering that, in our current media landscape, it seems we’re unable to focus on anything that takes place more than a week removed from our present situation. And yet, 2016 has now presented us a pair of feature films on distinct periods in the life of President Barack Obama — Southside With You and Barry (see review in the On Screen column) — and now this portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy.

While Oppenheim and Larraín in Jackie fearlessly confront a pivotal event, they do so fully employing the resources granted by time. They have an unprecedented accumulation of facts to frame their narrative. That’s one of the very first points Oppenheim makes during our recent interview.

The initial point of entry was via his father, he says. “(He) was a huge admirer of hers who grew up in that era and saved all of the newspapers and magazines from the week of the assassination,” Oppenheim says. 

Growing up, he would see that saved material when he visited his grandmother. It made an impression on him, he says, to be “looking through these boxes full of crumbling papers and pictures of Jackie in the black veil, leading that procession. She’s been an object of lifelong fascination.”

Jackie, as a project, began as a speculative script, which took Oppenheim six years to research and craft into the basis for Larraín’s stunning cinematic portrait, itself brought to life through Natalie Portman’s brittle and calculated performance. (Larraín has helmed Neruda, a look at the poet Pablo Neruda.)

Oppenheim is currently senior vice president of NBC News and the executive in charge of its Today show. He also has headed such political programs as Hardball with Chris Matthews and Scarborough Country. On the film side, he previously co-wrote the screenplay for The Maze Runner.

For Oppenheim to move beyond obsessive infatuation with the First Lady required delving into myriad sources. “There were some great books written right after the assassination by historians that really documented, in great detail, that period,” he says. “There were several works of long-form journalism; some were serialized in magazines. The Kennedy Library is a great repository. They did oral history interviews with a lot of the people. Not just in Dallas, but at the White House during that period. There’s an ocean of material that I drew upon for the basic architecture.”

The key element, which brought the narrative into focus, involves a bit of debunking of a widely accepted piece of the Kennedy mystique.

“I learned, later than I should have, that Jackie had given this interview where she had come up with the whole Camelot mythology a week after the assassination,” Oppenheim says. “I had always thought that people referred to the Kennedy administration or the Kennedy era as Camelot all along. 

“I was pretty stunned when I learned that she had created it, and that she had done so just seven days after he died,” he continues. “So once I learned that, it made for an interesting bookend of a week that begins with the assassination. I started looking at what happened during those seven days and learned about the struggle over the funeral and, of course, the emotional ordeal that she went through as a mom, a wife and a woman.”

Jackie the film shows how she gave birth to the legend and forced history to print it, without revealing her imprint on the document. With time and perspective, and with the diligence of detective-like screenwriter Oppenheim, we now know this. One lesson of Jackie is to never forget to study the past — it’s important for getting at the truth. 

JACKIE opens Friday at area theaters. It is rated R.