On the eve of Donald Trump’s presidency, a remarkable new film takes us back to an altogether different era, that of President John F. Kennedy and his young, soon to be a widow bride. Cahir O’Doherty reviews Jackie, the powerful new film starring Natalie Portman as the iconic first lady in the hours and days after the assassination that shook the world.
Everyone told Jackie Kennedy she was risking her life. The world’s gone mad, they warned her - if someone can shoot your husband in broad daylight they can shoot you too.
On the day before her husband’s funeral, her security experts told her she would be a fool to think of walking behind the funeral carriage for eight long city blocks. Think of all the exposed windows and rooftops, they told her. A bullet might have your name on it.
But Jackie’s answer to all this hand wringing was as steely as her character: the president of the United States has died, she said, and we will morn him.
History shows her decision was the right one, because everyone who had access to a television set that day watched the event from start to finish. It was as big a moment in the nation’s story as the death of Lincoln or the moon landing. The country came to a complete standstill.
But as Oscar winning actress Natalie Portman reminds us in Jackie, the powerful new film about the tragic first lady that opens this Friday, there was a human being under all that poise and position.
And Portman, 35, shows us what it cost her subject to keep the flame of Camelot – her mythical name for her husband’s all too brief presidency – burning the way it still does in Arlington Cemetery.
In director Pablo Larrain’s flawlessly directed film he keeps the camera close to his subject so we see what Jackie sees, and the effect is revelatory.
The film begins a week after the shocking assassination with Jackie, then aged 34, giving her famous Life magazine interview to Theodore H. White. As portrayed by Portman, she is utterly heart shot, still reeling from the shock, still incandescently furious but fully aware that she’s become the custodian of her husband’s legacy.
On the day of the shooting, the film reminds us, she has stand next to Lyndon B. Johnson as he is quickly sworn in as president, with her husband’s blood still fresh on her dress. No wonder she was as furious as the film shows us.
With her Brahmin background and her debutante’s flair, alongside her beauty, Jackie was an instant fashion icon. The film reminds us just how central the couple was to the style and social transformations of the 1960s, clearly foreshadowed by the presence of Robert F. Kennedy, played in the film with a lovely wounded authenticity by Peter Sarsgaard.
What many people don’t recall now is just what an affront an Irish Catholic president was to the old money ascendancy class and much of the South. Visiting priests and Mass being said within the legendary building appalled many of Kennedy’s detractors in ways that are broadly similar to the way even the idea of an African American president has in our own time.
To their detractors the Kennedy fortune was considered deeply suspect. Their politics and their strong belief in social justice and civil rights enraged their opposition and much of the country.
Jackie expertly reproduces the fault lines that inflamed the passions of all those who hated the Kennedys, but the film is never preachy or didactic. Instead it recreates the full complexity of that extraordinary before and after moment in history that changed the country and the world.
Portman's a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for her work, the strongest of her career. She nails the old world Brahmin accent, she reproduces the stiffly formal finishing school walk, but better than all of that, she rescues Jackie, the thinking, breathing woman, from Jackie the myth, a testament to the level of artistry her portrait took.
If there is a more vulnerable image than that pink dress and pill box hat as Jackie steps off Air Force One in Dallas on that fateful day in November 1963 you’ll be hard pressed to find it.
Portman, like Jackie, reminds us that history doesn’t often announce itself while it’s in the process of unfolding. Instead she gives us all the confusion and shock that leads up to the moment, and then away from it.
America changed the day Kennedy was killed. Arguably its brightest moment in a hundred years turned nightmarish and set the stage for all the conflicts to come that decade and all that followed: Vietnam, the civil rights battles, the assassinations of reformist leaders.
“We were beautiful but that’s not enough,” Bobby Kennedy tells her, reeling from the awareness that his brother’s great work still lay ahead and was taken from him by an assassin’s bullet.
In the film Jackie grapples with hard questions of her own. Where was God when her husband was shot, she asks her Irish American priest (played by John Hurt)? That crisis of faith in a benign deity mirrors her deeper crisis of faith in the political landscape that surrounds her.
But more than anything, Jackie reminds us how much of her husband’s legacy was shaped by his widow. In her interview with Life’s Theodore H. White she refers to the musical the president loved, Camelot.
“Let it never be forgot, for one brief shining moment there was a Camelot…” she tells the reporter; giving him his headline and her husband his greatest and most enduring epitaph.
Critics have for decades tried to portray Jackie as an empty-headed debutant. Even some members of the Kennedy family have taken similar cracks over the years. It’s nonsense, and the film makes this clear.
By taking charge of every aspect of her husband’s funeral she gave the nation and history the story that they will tell of her husband’s dazzling and ultimately tragic presidency from now till the end of time.
One scene makes her resolve clear. Riding with Bobby Kennedy in the back of the ambulance that contains her husband’s coffin on the day of the shooting, Jackie rolls down the window and asks the driver if he knows who James Garfield was. The driver says he doesn’t.
Then Jackie turns to the nurse seated opposite her and asks her if she knows who William McKinley was. The nurse says no. He final question is do they know who Abraham Lincoln was, and they both nod yes. In that moment we understand that she has decided that a major funeral will be held in her husband’s honor.
It almost seems remarkable that a film this solemn and serious could be made in this new era of reality TV presidents. Jackie, like her husband John a member of what Tom Brokaw memorably called the Greatest Generation, seems like an emissary from a lost era of maturity and grit.
You’ll want to cheer as she defies the forces that try to consign her husband’s life and work to a footnote of history. It’s because she understood better than anyone what a foundational challenge he was to the centuries of ascendancy tradition in the North (including the criminal underworld) and the civil rights resisting good old boys who despised him in the south. She refuses to go quietly.
For years, decades after that fateful day in November, people would approach Jackie and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I remember where I was that day.” Rarely did they ever realize that so did Jackie.
In the eyes of most Americans she had become not just a person but an icon. She had also become a story and it was a sad one.
Jackie successfully rescues her from her own towering myth, and everyone who cares about American democracy should see it and reflect on the lessons she still has to teach us.