The 2016 biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy, Jackie, approaches the biopic subgenre with fresh eyes – it tries to manage an extremely subjective experience of the former first lady immediately after the infamous assassination of her husband – but the film seems unsure of what it wants most to say about her, and how to say it. In effect, the second half of the film nestles cozily into the kind of biopic procedural we’ve come to expect from silver screen renderings of large historical figures (i.e. J. Edgar or The King’s Speech). Out of boredom, I wondered, “What if Jackie suddenly committed suicide?”
What would it mean for the film if the character ended her own life or abandoned her family? Besides the immediate shock over the film deviating from a known history, how would I react and what do I think it would mean for this particular profile of Jackie Kennedy? Yes, it would be revisionist to create a fictional ending to a story culled from history. But that’s okay! Hollywood has a weird puritanical desire to adhere to and preserve history in the most superficial sense, which can often subvert the limits of the medium.
In Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of Jackie, he posits that the film has two different agendas it’s simultaneously trying to carry out. 1) It’s trying to dive into the psyche of a woman who just lost her husband, and consequently, has her world logistically and emotionally shaken up, and 2) fulfilling traditional criteria by depicting the titular character’s own mythopoeia, and in doing so, depicting the myth of Jackie Kennedy. These are two different stories competing for narrative weight. The former is more interesting, but the latter, which focuses on historical fact, makes it harder to achieve a film that is centered on the emotional headspace of this person. This hesitance in Hollywood biopics to stray from historical accuracy has been a blight on the subgenre, constraining creativity in exchange for a high-profile actor doing an SNL-tier impression of a Wikipedia entry.
I am by no means a Quentin Tarantino devotee, but I do admire his willingness to acknowledge and embrace the inherent fiction of narrative film. His film Inglourious Basterds is a touchstone of willful revisionism, tailoring one of the most known stories in Western history to suit his own narrative agenda. But Tarantino’s revisionism is unique in that he’s not interested in telling a new, false history that slightly (and problematically) changes the events of history in order to graft a new political narrative onto historical events. He’s interested in using the narrative setup built into the Third Reich in order to tell an epic revenge tale.
The important thing about biopics is to acknowledge that each film representing a historical figure is already a subjective apprehension of who that character is anyway. Each new portrayal is reflective of the subjectivities of the creative minds telling the story, so trying to preserve facts by presenting an objective profile is mostly futile. For instance, the 2015 biopic of N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton, was deservedly the target of a lot of criticism due to (willfully) leaving out unsavory events that are necessary to fully understanding some of the group’s members. Produced by Ice Cube, the film was certainly an attempt to positively preserve and highlight N.W.A. as a political group that galvanized American culture at a time of civil unrest (and victims of their schemy manager). Straight Outta Compton is a great example of 1) how each biopic is a specific apprehension of its author, and 2) problematically revisionist biopics that try to slightly change the perception of a person/s in the cultural consciousness. Inglourious Basterds isn’t pretending to be a factual account of its historical subject; Straight Outta Compton is. Like Straight Outta Compton, Saving Mr. Banks, the Disney produced film about Walt Disney, is another movie that’s hard to take as anything other than revisionism as brand preservation.
Some of the most interesting biopics prioritize emotional honesty (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Hunger, The Social Network, Waltz With Bashir, Raging Bull, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, etc.) over precise historical events. If a factual account of the life of Jackie Kennedy is what you’re interested in, I’m sure there are tons of exhaustively researched biographies on the woman. Personally, I’d rather see more biopics like I’m Not There, where a director is exercising the extents to which you can use film to tell a person’s story, as opposed to sticking to a biopic template. Think of how dreadful Haynes’ Bob Dylan profile would’ve been if it skewed closer to the style of Walk The Line or Ray.
Coincidentally, it was in his review of Oliver Stone’s JFK that Roger Ebert talks about emotional honesty being more important than factual representation:
“I have no opinion on the factual accuracy of [Stone’s] 1991 film JFK. I don't think that's the point. This is not a film about the facts of the assassination, but about the feelings. JFK accurately reflects our national state of mind since Nov. 22, 1963. We feel the whole truth has not been told…”
I think Ebert’s point is not just his personal preference, but a larger comment about how we connect with movies. The moments that are most lasting are not about factual accuracy, but imparting a truth, big or small, about humanity. It seems like many biopic filmmakers and screenwriters are probably inspired by universal nuggets about the human condition that are in famous figures, but more often than not, these films get bogged down in a moralized respect for history (World Trade Center) or bewilderment of talent and stature (American Sniper) whether that betrays more interesting emotional truths or not.
Actually, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a film where the director was seemingly so taken by the man’s talent that it transcended both emotional truths and historical fact. This is an instance of revisionism that I don’t much champion - where a historical figure is used as a vessel to embellish facts that collude with an author’s xenophobia. A similar thing happened recently with Patriot’s Day, the film about the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s revisionist by inserting a hero that did not exist in history to be the film’s protagonist. While I don’t take exception with that, conceptually, the politics behind it fits so snugly into Hollywood’s (and America’s) propensity to centralize heroism via individuals, rather than groups. This is a bit disturbing because the revisionism portrayed seems to be a tactic to rally around a patriotism that can easily come off as jingoistic. This approach to a film centered around a national act of terrorism also comes off as hypermasculine, transposing macho proactivity over the act of grieving. Like Straight Outta Compton, Patriot’s Day was produced by someone (Mark Wahlberg) with an emotional stake in presenting a false version of this history.
If studio heads were more interested in biopics that impart emotional honesty, rather than tentpole achievements and abridged childhood backstories, the subgenre would bloom. Say Jackie Kennedy killed herself or abandoned her children in Jackie. The film might be using that to access the historical figure for any number of things built into her life – fame, loss, spotlight, a familial distance affected by luxury, a specific personality and personal history, trying to uphold a partner’s legacy, etc. – in order to explore how she was affected by loss.
Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette makes a beautiful argument for revisionist biopics. Coppola uses physical (and aural) anachronisms that technically revise history, but are working in metaphor to convey a clearer emotional truth that lives in this character. Marie Antoinette was specifically criticized for using pop music to tell a Victorian story, which I think is a very odd ideology to get behind, and one that is restrictive to film’s potential. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies were similarly criticized for using formalistic anachronisms.
Unfortunately, I’m sure there is little incentive, professionally, for filmmakers – especially younger ones who have yet to cut their teeth in the studio system – to play around with historical films. I’m sure studio heads would balk at the eventual backlash of an Elvis story that has him dying in a fatal car crash. Nevertheless, for the sake of artistry and entertainment, I ask for more experimentation in the biopic subgenre. I welcome a revisionism that uses known stories to explore and relay emotional histories that are not only universal, but can offer more useful insight into the lives of historical figures. As Ebert remarked, “All we can reasonably ask for is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”