The complicated Catholicism of ‘Jackie’

Christian faith, when it shows up in movies at all, can be hit or miss. In ‘Jackie,’ though, we see something else—a complex, sincere manifestation of faith.

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in "Jackie" directed by Pablo Larraín, 2016. Fox Searchlight Pictures |

Religion is everywhere in this year’s crop of Oscar hopefuls. People pray around the dinner table in Hidden Figures. A character thinks he visited heaven in Fences. We hear Islamic calls to prayer and see Hindu shrines in Lion.

And then there’s Jackie—a movie that boasts as powerful and poignant a depiction of faith as I’ve seen this year.

The film takes us through the tragic aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. Through the eyes of his glamorous, grieving widow, Jacqueline (played by Natalie Portman), we’re given access to the hallowed halls of American power, watching as she fights to preserve and redeem JFK’s complicated legacy.

Caspar Phillipson as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Natalie Portman as Jackie. Jackie, 2016. Fox Searchlight Pictures |
Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy and Natalie Portman as Jackie, dressed in her iconic pink suit. Jackie, 2016. Fox Searchlight Pictures |
Natalie Portman as Jackie in the film Jackie, 2016. Fox Searchlight Pictures |

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But naturally, even as Jackie skillfully stitches together the national myth of Camelot, she suffers. She’s haunted by the fatal gunshot wound and how she desperately tried to “keep the top of his head down, try to keep it all in.” We watch as she wipes blood from her face in the bathroom of Air Force One, weeping uncontrollably. We listen as she refuses to change out of her pink suit with the pillbox hat. (“Let them see what they’ve done!” she says.) Dazed, she walks through the White House’s near-empty rooms, wine bottle in hand. She’s lost. Angry. Hurt. Alone. Desperately trying to make sense of it all.

And eventually, almost reluctantly, she turns to the place where most of us would, too: her faith.

If God is love, why doesn’t He stop all the horrors that we visit on each other?”

At first in the movie, her Catholicism seems more like a hollow platitude—something to tell the children, to help them understand why Daddy won’t be coming home anymore.

“Daddy had to see your baby brother Patrick in heaven,” Jackie tells her two children, Caroline and Jack Jr., referring to Jackie’s son who died just two days after birth. “We don’t want Patrick to get lonely, do we?”

But Jackie’s own faith isn’t so pat, so secure. She still grieves for Patrick. She sees no cosmic point to her husband’s death. When she speaks to a priest (played by John Hurt), she’s visibly angry.

A funeral scene from the film, Jackie, 2016.
Fox Searchlight Pictures |

“I think God is cruel,” she says.

“And now you’re getting into trouble,” the priest responds. “God is love. And God is everywhere.”

“Was God in the bullet that killed Jack?” Jackie spits.

It’s Christianity’s terrible paradox: If God is love, why doesn’t He stop all the horrors that we visit on each other? Why doesn’t He save us from them? Even when we feel like we’ve found the answers to these questions, the answers themselves can be maddening.

Was God in the bullet?

“Absolutely,” the priest says.

“And is He in me now?” Jackie asks.

“Of course He is.”

“Well, that’s a funny game He plays, hiding all the time.”

“The fact that we don’t always understand Him isn’t funny at all,” the priest tells her.

Can we truly know God? Can we hope to understand everything He is or what He does? Of course not. It’s not possible for us. But even in the midst of the terribleness and tragedies of this life, we may be certain of two core truths: God loves us, and God is in control. And he can work through even our worst disasters. As Joseph tells his brothers in Genesis 50, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

Jackie begins talking with the priest regularly, each conversation seemingly more profound than the last. He’s honest, sometimes painfully so. He even shares that he, too, has harbored religious doubts. He offers no simple platitudes, no pat answers to Jackie’s understandable anguish and anger. But as they talk, the priest keeps returning to God’s mystery, and to God’s goodness in the midst of it.

Even in moments of unimaginable tragedy, God is still there.”

During one of their conversations, the priest recounts part of John 9, when Jesus and his disciples come across a blind man. His disciples ask who sinned to cause the man to be blind. Was it the blind man himself? His parents? Jesus answers that no one sinned, but he was made blind so that the works of God could be revealed in him.

“Right now, you are blind,” the priest tells Jackie. “Not because you have sinned but because you have been chosen. So that the works of God can be revealed in you.”

JACKIE, from left: John Hurt, Natalie Portman, as Jacqueline Kennedy, 2016. ph: Pablo Larrain/ TM & copyright © Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved. /Courtesy Everett Collection

John Hurt as the priest and Natalie Portman as Jackie in Jackie, 2016. Pablo Larrain | TM &amp | Fox Searchlight Pictures |

It’s hard for us to see the work of God in JFK’s assassination. How much it would be for Jackie. But the movie suggests that something special was revealed through the grieving widow during that terrible time: Her strength. Her grace. Her ability to help a nation express its own monumental sorrow. “You were a mother to all of us,” a journalist later tells her. “The entire country watched the funeral from beginning to end. Decades from now people will remember your dignity and honesty.”

Christian faith, when it shows up in movies at all, can be hit or miss. In overtly Christian flicks, it can feel sincere, but sometimes a little trite. In others, Christianity can take a beating, with Christian characters either clueless or mean, or the faith itself ineffective.

In Jackie, though, we see something else—a complex, sincere manifestation of faith. It’s not a cure-all. It’s not without its paradoxes or frustrations. But by the time the credits roll, we discover that faith can sustain us in our darkest times. That even in moments of unimaginable tragedy, God is still there; He’s still love. And He’s still working in and through every circumstance.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay
Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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