With the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, America’s most iconic First Lady became America’s Greatest Widow. Jacqueline Kennedy was left in a state of shock, anguish and grief, and yet she also seems to have intuited an important truth: The wave of suffering that threatened to overwhelm her (and the nation) counted for little against the longer obliterating tides of time and history.
It was her duty not only to mourn publicly, and properly, but to shore up the legacy of her husband’s never-to-be-completed first term.
Meanwhile — a smaller but sharper problem — she was about to lose her home in the White House to the new president and first lady, Lyndon Baines and Lady Bird Johnson. She had to secure a future for herself and her two children: She was haunted by the specter of poor Mary Todd Lincoln, an earlier Great American Widow remembered chiefly for being money-strapped and mentally ill, a sort of miserable, minor postscript to her husband’s glorious presidency.
How Mrs. Kennedy lay the groundwork for the myth of an American Camelot even as the world seemed on the verge of collapse is the story of the brilliant new film Jackie, which both compresses and races through events with an unsentimental intimacy. Every detail shines with significance.
It’s so bracingly imaginative and intelligent, it practically makes the synapses tingle.
This is true as well of Oscar-winner Natalie Portman’s performance.
The film repeatedly contrasts the Jackie before 1963 — in particular, the impeccably styled woman who hosted the famous White House “open house” TV special in 1962– and the unseen, essentially solitary woman who perhaps realized better than her powerful in-laws how to tend her husband’s flame. (The literally eternal flame in Arlington Cemetery was arguably the least of it.)
Portman’s early Jackie is like a small porcelain doll, shiny-faced while awkwardly showing off the finest bits of furniture in her dollhouse. Her post-Dallas Jackie is closer to a heroine from Greek drama: She’s aware that the entire dynastic house is about to come tumbling down around her, marble columns, porticos, the works, and yet she prevails by sheer force of will, an unexpected reserve of toughness and a sensibility that imbues the political with touches of the poetic.
Portman seems more diminutive than the real Jackie, and she doesn’t project her elusive, almost blank charisma — who ever did, other than Jackie herself? — but she’s the first actress to make you appreciate how powerful Jackie must have been, despite the aura of floating glamour that could be mistaken for passivity. (She also nails the Jackie “voice,” which suggested the work of an elocution coach who had filled her mouth with pebbles and then forgotten to take them all out.)
This is simply wonderful acting.
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Summoning her superior knowledge of history — something she’s pointedly proud of in the film — Jackie decides to model the public funeral on the memorably solemn procession that bore the casket of Abraham Lincoln. The idea, which she articulates very clearly, is to make the public associate her husband with that tragic giant and not the lesser likes of the assassinated President James A. Garfield.
Her greatest coup, perhaps, is to invent — not exactly out of whole cloth, but with a degree of creative license — the so-called myth of “Camelot” during a series of interviews with a reporter. Did she and the president, as she recalls here, really love to unwind at the end of the day by listening to the recording of the hit Broadway musical — to Richard Burton, as King Arthur, singing with rich, tender nostalgia about that “one brief shining moment”?
Perhaps. But what director Pablo Larrain gives us is a scene of Jackie listening to the album, alone, drunk, wandering the rooms that she’s soon going to forfeit to the Johnsons. She’s like a caged animal, or maybe an animal that would rather stay caged.
If anything, Jackie suggests, “Camelot” was her song, not her husband’s. She allowed it to become a sort of Kennedy White House theme in an act that was both generous and shrewd, breathing life into an image that would serve the country (and the Kennedys) for decades. She certainly helped further the career of Robert Kennedy, sharply played here by Peter Sarsgaard (only without Bobby’s tousled forelock — the production values are modest, with most of the inner circle looking as if they wandered away from a White House tour line). How many Americans regarded Robert as a way to make the brief shining moment less brief, more shining?
You come away from Jackie wondering if her canny sense of how to play the mass media didn’t put her in the same league as the 1960s’ other reigning enigma, Andy Warhol. (Jackie became one his favorite subjects: She’s featured in more than 300 of his works, many of them based on photos from the assassination.)
This extraordinary movie ends without Jackie having found the true long-term security she needed when she left the White House, but we know the answer to that. It went by the name Aristotle Onassis.
In limited release, R.