The devil has really been in her bag lately. We’re living in a time of overlapping pandemics; I haven’t seen my closest friends in months. Every day, I wake up to push alerts announcing new horrors, new violence, and new murders. So many people I love are immunocompromised and afraid to leave their homes; so many more people I love are healthy, depressed, busy tweeting and talking and protesting, trying to do anything to feel a little less in the clutches of racism. Every day is hard in a new and different way: What will the devil think of next? (I like to externalize this badness — to talk about the devil as if she’s a scheming, genius reality-show villain. If she didn’t have new and worse scams up her statement sleeve, I might have to stan.) “The past few years have just been like titty punch after titty punch after titty fucking punch!” the comedian Jaboukie Young-White told me in April. It is the only description that feels appropriate.
Some days, my specific strain of malaise makes me reject anything hopeful. I don’t want to feel inspired; I want to feel correct — vindicated in my sadness. I want to see this weight I feel. I want to watch it. Hello, Jackie! Pablo Larraín’s 2016 movie about Jackie Kennedy is less a biopic than it is an experience of grief affixed to film. The plot moves between John F. Kennedy’s assassination as it exists in Jackie Kennedy’s memory, and the immediate aftermath, when she was tasked with planning his funeral. I’ve written about this movie before, the way Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy floats, ghostlike, through the White House. Loss is complicated, confusing: She loves her husband, but she resents him. She hates that White House, but she can’t fathom not living in a place they share. She’s irate at all the men who surround her — advisers, agents, brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) — and the way they expect her to experience something horrific quickly, and quietly, because they need to be home for dinner. The Mica Levi score hangs like a heavy fog over every scene, letting us feel alive to a dread Jackie can’t express with words. I generally consider myself to be dramatic, but look outside, at this world! I feel this frustrated anguish, this disaffected sorrow, more than I don’t feel it.
My favorite line in Jackie is a few words about how grief distorts happy memories and sad ones, making it impossible to understand how you feel or what you lack. But this is a column about the way lines, sentences, or phrases are delivered and the way those deliveries have glommed onto my gloomy brain. So the line reading we’re discussing today is perversely odd. Like The Social Network’s “Let’s gut the friggin’ nerd,” it’s a false note, a weird performance, a funny feeling. In the days immediately following her husband’s murder, life has to go on — Jackie starts to plan a public funeral, then changes her mind to a private one; she throws John F. Kennedy Jr. a 3rd-birthday party. In one tender moment, the camera finds her sitting alone on the bed in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom, the day before the funeral, thinking about it all. Bobby Kennedy barges in, his grief and confusion finally taking hold: The only thing the Lincoln Bedroom reminds him of is that Lincoln was a great president and his brother accomplished so little. He slams a door, curses their luck. “Bobby, watch your mouth!” Jackie says. “What did we accomplish, huh?” he simpers. “We’re just — we’re just the beautiful people? Right? Isn’t that what we are? What did we truly accomplish?”
It’s the way he says it — ah-caaalm-plush — that makes me feel seen and slighted all at once. The word is mutilated in Peter Sarsgaard’s mouth, by Peter Sarsgaard’s tongue. Whadid we ah-calm-plush? he asks, as if that’s how any of those words sound in an American accent, let alone a Boston one. Whadid we true-lee ah-calm-plush? The delivery of the line sounds like its own bad SNL sketch, like it should come with a side order of jazz hands. I am of the opinion that Peter Sarsgaard and whatever accent he is doing have no business being in this movie. It is a great mystery to me why he is here. The only thing he really contributes is a visually effective eight-inch height differential between him and Portman, which seems to deflate scene by scene. (Sarsgaard’s casting is one of this movie’s two flaws, both the failures of men: Jackie was written by NBC News president Noah Oppenheim, who seems to have been instrumental in the network not running Ronan Farrow’s bombshell Harvey Weinstein investigation.)
And yet I can’t get enough of this line, especially now. Whadid we ah-calm-plush?! I ask myself, when I’ve come home from the supermarket, wiped down all my groceries with disinfectant, and proceed to feel too lazy to do anything else. Whadid we true-lee ah-calm-plush? I wonder, when I watch one movie and then another and then lose track of time doom-scrolling until midnight. Whadid we ah-caaalm-plush?! I think to myself, when I tweet jokes instead of writing real work, when I decide to walk to a park instead of calling my parents, when I paint my toenails halfway decently. Whadid we true-lee ah-calm-plush? I ask myself, rushing to match and retweet my friends’ bail fund donations and survivor GoFundMes, not sure if it’s helping anything or changing anything. Oluwatoyin Salau still died when she was 19; Breonna Taylor’s killers still haven’t been arrested. Whadid we ah-calm-plush?!
Jackie rightly makes a horror movie out of something horrible — the gendered experience of loss. “Nancy said they wanted to share my grief,” Jackie says in voiceover later, referring to Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), the White House social secretary at the time. Walking alone at the head of the long, historic procession, she adds, “So I let them.” The scene is haunting in its stillness, the way the only thing moving in this moment seems to be her funeral veil flapping in the wind. Every person who died from the coronavirus should get this same procession. Every person who has been killed by the state is owed this level of attention. Jackie and Onassis herself are obviously perched from a place of privilege; a wife is asking how to make one death feel as real, as immediate, as all-encompassing for everyone else as it does for her. He was white and president, so she can make some version of that happen. But that frustration is how I feel, right now, about everything I see. How do we honor the dead? How can we keep them alive? How do we make sorrow feel important? But also: My lease is up in just a few weeks. I haven’t seen my parents in months. Life is moving so quickly.
The Bobby Kennedy–Lincoln Bedroom scene is a perfect farce: It’s the only time we get to see how a man would act in a position similar to Jackie’s — the way he would thrash and rage, slam doors, pace around a room. In an earlier scene, Jackie has to wear blood on her clothes to ensure that people acknowledge her human loss. It feels right, then, like a dose of meta-goodness, that when a man finally deigns to talk about his feelings, it comes out all bungled, rotten. When he tries to give a name to the grief they both share, he can’t even do it! Instead, he squawks out syllables that claim to amount to “What did we truly accomplish?” It’s by this point in the film I can’t help but laugh my way out of the prevailing sadness of a morose day. We’re just the beautiful people? Right? I say aloud to myself when I’ve just finished FaceTiming with a friend and feel full, happy, normal — Is that what we are? And then I laugh again. It is funny to imagine Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy fretting over this, and honestly, why should I?