‘Veep,’ ‘Jackie,’ and the Existential Dread of Post-Presidency Life


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“There should be more horses, more soldiers, more crying, more cameras,” Natalie Portman demands in that upper-crust, performative mid-Atlantic accent in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, shortly after she’s witnessed her president husband’s head explode in a convertible just next to her. She’s in shock — and it leads her to meticulously, obsessively conceptualize how John F. Kennedy will be remembered. The movie draws a line from the days of planning following his death straight to our future perception of the president: I, for one, felt the film directly casting relief on my vague 28-year-old affiliation with JFK as the Great, Handsome President Whose Accomplishments I Absolutely Couldn’t Name.

Beyond a vertiginous, alien score by Mica Levi and its stylized camerawork, Jackie is more than a conventional biopic because its central question is not, “Who was this person/what was his history?” but rather something larger: What might drive a person to ensure that future generations will ask those questions? Why memorialize? How do the pomp and circumstance of legacy-making take away from a life itself? The sixth season of Veep — which explores those very same questions — is darker, funnier, and more philosophical than any of the previous seasons. Like Jackie, it portrays a wildly under-examined realm of American politics — American post-politics, an open terrain of loss, angst, identity crises, and a sharp shift from public life to sudden, forced interiority.

In the second episode of Veep‘s current season, which airs this Sunday, ex-president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, more vicious, vulnerable, and spectacular than ever) decides she wants to start building her legacy — literally. She’ll erect a presidential library…somewhere, somehow, and with someone’s money. This decision actually prompts the evocation of JFK himself: “The Kennedy library is a reference because he was also a part timer,” she mentions, trying to aggrandize her own exceedingly short presidency by comparing it to another that ended abruptly, albeit for very different reasons.

But while John F. Kennedy is remembered with knee-jerk fondness and romanticism, Jackie posits that part of that collective commemoration stems from the heroizing ceremoniousness of Jackie Kennedy’s memorial. As Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) emphasizes, JFK’s actual accomplishments in his short time in office weren’t much compared to the imagistic allure of his short-lived presidency. Veep‘s current season takes place during a time when Selina, too, could rewrite the narrative of her presidency and overcome the stigma of having won the Oval Office only because the current president resigned. Except, of course, she and her minions run her career of post-presidential revisionism just as clumsily as they ran her presidency.

Some critics who reviewed Veep‘s sixth season measured its worth based on its relevance to the times — keeping in line with the exhausted/exhausting and somewhat inevitable trend in criticism right now to consider art not so much qualitatively (is it funny? Moving?) but rather as a gauge of how thoroughly it mirrors the political climate. (Is it Trumpy? Does its Trumpiness normalize or demonize Trumpism? How does that normalization or demonization correspond to the etc., etc., etc.)

But if Veep was ever concerned solely with political relevance, it would have had to break from its refusal to designate its characters as either Democrats or Republicans (or, conversely, it would have to be more barefaced about satirizing one particular facet of politics that its equivocal anti-idealogues might actually reflect — moderate, institutional Democrats). Even among moderates, partisanship is perhaps the biggest driving force in U.S. policymaking right now, and any work of art that strives for pure satire or allegory won’t really land unless it acknowledges that. Rather than its relevancy to the times, perhaps the reason Veep‘s new season is so good is that at its core, it shows us politicians’ personal lives magnified from this sad, domesticated angle.

And, incidentally, that’s not at all irrelevant. Might George W. Bush, for example, grapple with a legacy of torture and destructive interventionism by painting cute oil portraits of veterans of his wars, then enjoy a revived reputation as an innocuous do-gooder grandaddy by lovable TV personalities? Might Hillary Clinton, who lost the presidency to the man whose depravity has now catalyzed Bush-revisionism, publicly display her turn away from the public eye through a hilariously symbolic and seemingly very staged image? And how might both of these instances speak to the ways memory allows symbolism to trump reality? So often it seems that history is not so much the events that happened so much as the composite of symbols people in power select for us to remember them by.

We love stories about people in power because we love to be voyeurs to power and wealth. But these stories can be limited in their emotional scope, as it’s hard to really watch someone do anything with infinite power besides be infinitely powerful.

Jackie is grounded in time by an interview for Life magazine the film’s title character gave a week after JFK’s assassination. The scenes between Natalie Portman and Billy Crudup’s journalist character represent a quiet fight over who gets to write history. Veep is the funhouse mirror equivalent of those scenes: When Selina poses for her official portrait, she tries to exert control over the very shape by which she’s depicted, because it’s not just a matter of vanity — it’s a matter of legacy. At night, she sits at home, playing backgammon with one assistant (Gary, played by Tony Hale) while the other (Richard Splett, played by Sam Richardson) tries to help her come up with the first sentence of her memoir.

Selina’s presidency was hilarious, but while she held that position, the show struggled to make the power dynamics fluctuate in compelling ways, because by definition, she just was the Most Powerful. Now, each scene sees her confronting the familiar, humbler dynamic of maneuvering every single social exchange as an uncertain power play. She’s seated in coach. Her former subordinate hangs up on her. Her daughter writes cheques to keep her mother’s post-presidential foundation afloat. What’s more interesting — and hilarious — than a human, turned into a (shitty) superhuman, turned back into a human again?

The more Selina tries to turn her legacy into something beyond that which typical humans are granted, the more she has to confront the granular power struggles of everyday people. Of course, she still dismisses people’s actual struggles — when she receives an award from a transgender organization, she declares, “Tell the bearded ladies I’m comin'”; when it’s proposed that a woman architect design her library, she says, “Well, we’re not redoing a kitchen here.” And yet, this season in particular, she finds herself on the losing end of one power struggle after another.

In Jackie, the title character sublimates her very real, devastating grief into homage — essentially, overblown aesthetic gestures — while Selina Meyer is, of course, simply mourning the displacement of a presidential ego. And yet both works speak to the instinct to memorialize the powerful dead with towering effigies that say, in effect, “He did…something.” “I want a goddamn, look-at-the-size-of-my-dick, bring-history-to-life, presidential library,” Selina Meyer intones. In so doing, she evokes the tomb of compensatory erect-dick monuments that is Washington, D.C. — and maybe all of human history.

Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.