A Few 'Brief Shining Moments' Worthy of Camelot in 'Jackie'

Set in the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, ‘Jackie’ depicts the initial stages of his elevation to mythic status by his widow, Jacqueline, who in the process became a living icon.

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Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the film, 'Jackie.'
Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the film, 'Jackie.'Credit: William Gray, Fox Searchlight via AP

More than half a century after theassassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and more than two decades after her death in 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy remains an American icon. Her status is in the same league as that of Elizabeth Taylor, who was the biggest Hollywood star during the period of the Kennedy presidency, or of Marilyn Monroe, who died a few months before Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Still, because Taylor and Monroe were movie stars, their place in the global collective memory and consciousness exceeds that of Jacqueline Kennedy. For that reason, the new film “Jackie,” now in wide distribution in Israel, may generate more interest in the United States than in other countries, where her memory is less resonant.

This historical and cultural disparity comes through in the film’s reconstruction of a 1962 television program, “A Tour of the White House,” in which the First Lady, in a hesitant, almost shy style that captivated viewers, showed rooms and treasures of the presidential residence. (The scene incorporates bits of the original program, in which Jacqueline Kennedy herself is seen from afar.) The broadcast drew an American television audience of unprecedented size, and indeed, even though it was seen in 50 other countries (not Israel, which did not have television at the time), its status as a formative television event is confined to the United States. The recreation of the broadcast – which helped make Jacqueline Kennedy an icon – will thus say little to a non-American audience, still less given the distance in time.

To respond to “Jackie,” it’s necessary to discover the broader theme in the portrait painted by the Chilean director Pablo Larrain and the scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim. The frame story is set about a week after the assassination and a few days after the president’s funeral. Those two events, together with several ancillary ceremonies and rites of passage – notably the immediate swearing-in of Lyndon B. Johnson as president, which the widow, who attended the ceremony still wearing the pink Chanel suit that was stained with her husband’s blood, thought was too hasty – engraved indelible images in the American consciousness. They too are recreated in the film (in the case of the assassination, briefly but realistically).

The plot draws on a historical event to construct its fiction. After Jackie moved into the Kennedy family estate in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, she gave an exclusive interview to the noted political journalist and historian Theodore H. White, for publication in Life magazine. In “Jackie,” an unnamed journalist interviews the widow, and as played by Billy Crudup he is surprisingly distant and cold toward her. Nevertheless, his attitude does not deter Kennedy (Natalie Portman), whose condition for granting the interview was that she would approve every word in it. At one point, she informs the interviewer that she will not allow him to publish the answer she’s just given to one of his questions, or to mention the fact that she smokes.

The interview provides the frame story for the depiction of the first week of Kennedy’s widowhood, which is punctuated by flashbacks to her period as First Lady. (President Kennedy himself, played by lookalike Caspar Phillipson, is seen only fleetingly in the flashbacks.) A major theme is how Jacqueline copes with mourning that is both public and private. The film shows how, out of her weakness (in her private moments she’s seen drinking and taking pills) and her pain, Kennedy – whose only close ties are her late husband’s brother, Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) – forges the myth of her slain husband and his brief presidency. First, by controlling every detail of the president’s funeral, then through the controlled interview.

In one of the movie’s private scenes, she listens to the final number from the musical “Camelot,” which debuted on Broadway in 1960, the year her husband took office: about the “one brief, shining moment” called Camelot. In the interview with White, and in “Jackie” with the anonymous journalist, she recalls her husband’s love of and identification with the song. By this means she implants in the American consciousness the parallel between John Kennedy and the legendary King Arthur, and between Kennedy’s White House and Camelot, Arthur’s castle and court. Long afterward, both parallels remain deeply entrenched in the American psyche. (History relates that the editors of Life wanted to delete the Camelot reference, claiming it was a kitschy manipulation, but Jacqueline insisted that it remain, and so the mythologizing began.)

The national widow

Naturally, by elevating her husband to mythic status, his widow was also doing the same for herself. Indeed, the portrait drawn by the film is that of a woman who, despite her traumatic loss – she tells the journalist that she lost not only a husband but also a home and status – is fixated on mythologizing her husband, and thus also herself. Her loss may explain why, five years after the assassination, she married the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis,shocking America (this is unmentioned in the movie). To that end, she adeptly musters the White House staff, the media and, perhaps first and foremost, the perception of her as the national widow. The image of Jacqueline Kennedy at the funeral, accompanying her husband’s casket on foot, despite the security risk, has become iconic – not least because of the transparent black mourning veil she wore, which simultaneously hid her face and revealed it: nothing helps create a myth more than the interplay between the overt and the hidden.

The movie, then, is about the creation of a myth, of which the woman who forges it is a part. Everything in the picture serves this goal, from its color scheme, in which white dominates the frame story and red and pink the scenes of the widow’s private space, to the appearance of Natalie Portman in the lead. There is little depth in the way the film handles Kennedy’s manipulation of those around her to achieve her goal – she shares her self-questioning about her role in preserving her husband’s heritage in a few scenes, which add little to the movie, with a Catholic priest (John Hurt, in one of his last roles) – and, accordingly, not much depth in the main theme, either. 

Audiences in the United States, where the Kennedy myth remains potent and where Jacqueline Kennedy has acquired the status of an icon, may find greater depth in the film than non-American viewers. But if that’s the case, it points to a flaw in the movie. 

Still, “Jackie” can be viewed with a certain interest, as can the performance by Natalie Portman. As in most of her recent screen roles, such as in “Black Swan” and “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (which she also directed), Portman makes too much of an effort – she seems to have lost the captivating naturalness she possessed as a child and adolescent actress. In this case, though, the effort intertwines with the endeavor of the character she plays to realize her goal amid all the contradictions that characterize her. The result, even if  too extroverted at times, generates some effective moments.