Unclear what the incentive is to re-explore this history, arguably the worst saga that the emerging modern United States ever endured. Some things should maybe be relegated to dry history books rather than Natalie Portman’s wrenching performance of a woman in the public eye’s unimaginable shock and grief. Maybe not many of you in this group were there on November 22, 1963. Like Zelig, I was and I remember the fine details to this day. The news break-in from a soap opera:
Followed by a profound shock that covered the country like a big wet blanket. Everything, EVERYTHING stopped dead in its tracks. No one went to work, businesses closed, no traffic. Every American that had one was glued to (then) ancient black & White televisions or radios. Schools closed. Crowds gathered to storefront picture windows to watch. There was an eerie silence everywhere. The radio stations played funeral dirge music continuously. Children were terrified as were their parents. No one really knew what was possible next.
Natalie Portman is an excellent, multi-decorated actress and she poured herself into the persona of a woman in the public eye who very intimately experienced the destruction of her life and the life of her country in a virtual heartbeat. Losing a husband on the world’s largest stage. In all seriousness, I can’t think of another contemporary actress that could have brought this to a screen. Her physical similarity to Jackie is striking as is her voice and manner.
But there was a lot more to this woman than her ability to stand and persist following this unqualified disaster. Jackie knew two things intuitively. That the American public, millions of them, were watching her during this aftermath and counting on her to show strength and resilience. No one in post-modern America had ever experienced anything like this and they clearly needed pillars of strength to point toward a better future. Mrs. Dead president was clearly that person.
Jackie also knew that the remembrance of history is the written word, written after facts, suggesting the initial scenes where a world-class writer is engaged to write the intimate history of the aftermath insuring her husband’s rightful place as Jackie saw it, not as a politician might. (That actor, Billy Crudup is based on presidential biographer Theodore H. White, who wrote “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” a Life Magazine article that ran one week after Kennedy’s assassination).
Toward both of those ends, Jackie demanded a spectacle for the funeral and burial of JFK, and she very nearly didn’t get it, as there were concerns that there may be more shooters out there. In the end, the entire pageant played out to her specifications. Mother and children front & center at the Rotunda, followed by all marching to St. Mathews, a distance of 8 city blocks behind a rider-less horse with boots reversed in stirrups. Watched by millions along the route and on television. It was a spectacle no one believed could have ever happened.
Parenthetically, following the assassination of Jack Kennedy’s brother Bobby, a train carrying the body to it’s final resting place was met by literally standing room only people along the route for it’s entire length. I think would have been a radically different world had Robert F. Kennedy lived.
This is a “historical figure contemplates self” film that relies completely on Natalie Portman’s ability to morph into her subject. She becomes Jackie Kennedy is a very real and convincing way, warts and all.
Interestingly, watch for something I noticed. During the film, the director portrays some of Jackie’s 1962 tour of the White House, using ancient 16 mm cameras and film digitally doctored to appear as early ‘60s black & white viewing screens. These scenes are scattered throughout the film. Keep your eye out for one of these scenes near the end of the film. You’ll notice that in this one clip, the audio of Jackie (Natalie) speaking for the camera doesn’t match. Look closely at the woman in this clip. I’m VERY convinced they slipped a clip of the real Jackie in there and most of the audience didn’t notice. The resemblance is nearly perfect except the real Jackie as a bit larger mouth. The director, Pablo Larraín, later hinted that they played around a bit with some of these clips. Jackie had to stand for herself as an ordinary woman but also for Jackie the historical figure, the myth, especially for the myth of Camelot she embraced and promoted.
Predating the Kennedy assassination by three years, the “real” Camelot on Broadway starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews played for 873 performances in 1960 and earned four Tony’s. It got mixed reviews at the time but spawned an eponymous movie in 1967 (Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave). The sound track album topped the charts for 60 weeks. The plot of Camelot involved a mythical kingdom of equal peers that functioned to political and social perfection, much like Sangri la. Then, inevitably, jealously, greed, covetousness and dishonor color the perfection, bringing it to ground, never to resurrect. Richard Burton’s speech reminding Arthur of the idealism and hope that he had as a young king haunts to this day. “For one brief shining moment…….there was Camelot”.
Jackie knew that the three years of her husband’s presidency resembled the myth of Camelot in many respects and she nurtured that image which persists to this day.
This is a very, very intense film interpreted to perfection by Natalie Porter and director Pablo Larraín, who gives her free reign. There are some issues. The extreme close ups become a bit irritating after a while. Jackie ignores or dismisses some of the more controversial facets of the Camelot myth, infidelity and having to fix disasters of his own making.
If you’re up for some serious melodrama, I recommend it. I give it 4 of 5 gloomy flag draped caskets.
David Crippen, MD, FCCM
University of Pittsburgh (Ret)