ByElise Jost, writer at
"It's a UNIX system! I know this!" Twitter @elisejost
Elise Jost

The fact that a movie is based on a true story tends to be a great asset in terms of marketing, with the "based on true events" tagline adding some sort of cachet to trailers and posters and opening credits. But as far as writing the script goes, the idea of having to recreate a moment in history while still bringing something new to the table is a tricky one: How do you make your movie compelling when the events themselves are already known by the public?

With movies such as Lion, Hidden Figures and Jackie nominated at the this year, this question is more crucial than ever — and it's the latter that provides the most fascinating approach. The story of how President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 is an extremely famous one that's been retold countless times on paper and on screen, yet Pablo Larraín's feels refreshing and adds a whole new layer to the tale as we know it. But unlike the reporter who's interviewing the former First Lady throughout the movie, we don't even really need to know if it's true.

Even Though It's Based On A True Story, 'Jackie' Keeps The Mystery Alive

The magic of Jackie is that it takes its time to come together, only revealing the point it's trying to make much later in the script. It starts out confusing, erratic even, just like Jackie herself when she runs back and forth, shell-shocked by the assassination of her husband that took place in front of her very eyes. It's not clear at first what exactly the movie is trying to say about the iconic First Lady, except for the reminder that it'll forever be impossible to understand exactly what it must have felt like. Still, you want to know more, find out where her insane journey is going to take her, and you're eager to let Larraín's unusually close shots and disturbing music do their work.

Wonderfully they do, with the movie making all the puzzling pieces fit together in the end. Keeping the mystery alive in an adaptation of one of the most well-known events in modern American history is quite a feat, but it's the fact that Larraín manages to deliver his own version of the story that truly makes Jackie shine.

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As he tells the New York Times, making the movie was all about filling the spaces that hadn't been put in the spotlight before:

"Icons have always been involved in shaping their own legends, but often it ends up going somewhere else where they can't control it. There's a gap, and that gap is the uncontrollable moment, and that's what you want to look at."

The history as we know it only provides the groundwork for the movie; the rest of it is extremely touching and personal. That's because it's not so much about the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination as it is about the person of Jackie, exploring her character and putting together a portrait from the few elements she was willing to reveal to the public: The pink Chanel suit, the unmistakable accent... does a fantastic job of providing an intimate look at the life and thoughts of the former First Lady, but what matters most isn't that her interpretation is actually 100% true — it's that it feels true.

Movies Should Add To The True Story They're Based On

'Jackie' [Credit: Fox Searchlight]
'Jackie' [Credit: Fox Searchlight]

It's what distinguishes Jackie from other contenders such as Hidden Figures, which seems mostly dedicated to telling us the facts. Even if they're in themselves fascinating and the performances are wonderful, the movie doesn't suggest that there might be something else to the three black female engineers who helped change the course of space history. We see them struggle and succeed at work; we see them live their daily lives pretty much like we'd have imagined — but shouldn't the movie aim to get off the tracks that history already laid out?

In the very beginning of the interview that provides the framework to the movie, Jackie proves she's very well aware that she can't fully control her image, and that the romanticizing of her story will take over her legacy.

"I believe the characters we read on the page become more real than the men who stand beside us."

And I believe it'd be a hopeless attempt to try to make those characters stick exactly to the real-life men and women who defined our history. If we'll never meet them, we can at least imagine what they must have been like, and fully commit to fleshing out the characters who bring their story to life.

What did you think of Natalie Portman's performance in Jackie?


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