I certainly remember where I was on that rainy day. I was returning to my fifth grade classroom with my classmates after having attended our weekly religious education class. For the next week, my parents and I followed the television coverage chronicling the events leading up to President Kennedy’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The assassination of JFK will remain one of those iconic moments in American history. All of these memories came back to me while watching “Jackie,” a new film starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy and directed by Pablo Larrain.
“Jackie” allows us to get a glimpse of what Jacqueline Kennedy may have been like those first few days after her husband’s death. She tells her story through the lens of journalist Theodore H. White’s interview in Life magazine conducted with the former First Lady shortly after she moved out of the White House.
White had been contacted by Mrs. Kennedy to write her story because of what she believed were unflattering and hurtful news stories written about her immediately after the assassination. The guarded and intensely private woman that the American public saw is juxtaposed with a picture of a very real, very human woman who had just experienced a brutal and violent end to her larger-than-life husband.
Throughout the film, Jackie struggles with finding meaning in what she witnessed while also needing to redefine not only her husband’s legacy but also who she is now that she is no longer First Lady. As she goes about arranging her husband’s funeral while also going through their living quarters at the White House in preparation for moving out, Portman shows a woman on an emotional roller coaster, unable to find her emotional rudder — chain smoking and drinking as a way to cope late at night when no one can see.
On one hand, the movie shows us the Jacqueline Kennedy known for being reserved, a bit distant and someone who could maintain her composure regardless of the circumstances. This was the deeply protective mother who worked hard to shelter her two children, Caroline and John, Jr., from the prying eyes of the public, preparing them for life without their father.
Portman also shows us the woman who now must find a way to ensure her husband’s image and legacy in spite of his brief presidency. As White brings out in the interview, JFK was president of the world’s most powerful nation for only a little over two and a half years. What had he really accomplished in that short time? He had not been able to implement civil rights and the Bay of Pigs was still fresh in the public’s mind as a failure of his presidency. This side of Jackie is reinforced with segments of her well-known televised tour of the White House – the nation’s first inside look at the newly renovated landmark.
One way for Jackie to preserve her husband’s legacy is to organize a state funeral befitting a great man. As the first assassination of a U.S. president since William McKinley, there was little precedent for Jackie to follow, but she is intent on having a funeral that would leave no doubt as to the legacy, real or perceived, of her husband. She turns to the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, something her brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy (played by Peter Sarsgaard), strongly advises against, in keeping with the climate of apprehension that now pervaded many elected officials. This included foreign heads of state and dignitaries. After all, if a modern President of the United States can be assassinated, then who is safe, even with the protection of the Secret Service?
The official trailer for “Jackie” (courtesy Fox Searchlight).
On the other hand, the movie shows us the “downside” of Jackie’s emotional roller coaster when she is alone in the family quarters in the White House and as she is being pastorally counseled by the priest who would conduct the funeral, Father John Cavanaugh. In these deeply personal moments, Portman shows us a Jackie who must now face an uncertain future as a single mother with a famous last name.
Where would she go? Where would they now live? How does one begin to pick up the pieces of a life that was lived in the public eye? How does one live after “Camelot”? She seems at sea in these moments, continually reliving the shooting with her husband’s shattered head in her lap, the immediate swearing in of President Lyndon Johnson on the plane juxtaposed with formal state dinners and dancing with her husband while wearing her glamorous evening gowns.
The state funeral gradually comes together as does preparations for JFK’s final resting place. There is no question in Jackie’s mind that he cannot be laid to rest in the family plot if she is to ensure his legacy. He should be interred in Arlington Cemetery. The film shows how she strategically works with the director of Arlington, ultimately resulting in the space on the hill with a view toward the Capitol.
“Jackie” has been nominated for three Academy Awards, including Natalie Portman for Best Actress. Should she win the Oscar, it would be justly deserved. The continual inclusion of footage of JFK’s head in her lap subtly draws us into what it must have been like to be Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the 35th President of the United States, in what is arguably one of the most difficult times in a person’s life.
As a young girl, I was enthralled with Jackie Kennedy. She was someone I and most of my girlfriends thought was the epitome of a wife of a president and a woman to admire. We used to dream and imagine ourselves living in the White House and hosting a wide array of kings, queens and heads of state and wearing all of those beautiful evening gowns with those elegant long satin evening gloves. In essence, we dreamed of living in a modern-day Camelot. But none of us stopped to wonder what it must have been like in the aftermath of Dealey Plaza in Dallas. After viewing “Jackie,” no one need wonder anymore.♦
“Jackie” (rated R) is currently in select theaters. Running time: 99 minutes. Directed by Pablo Larrain; written by Noah Oppenheim; main cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and the late John Hurt. See IMDB for full details.
Dr. Kathy Winings is Vice President for Academic Affairs; Director, Doctor of Ministry Program; and, Professor of Religious Education and Ministry at UTS. She is also Vice President of the Board of Directors for the International Relief Friendship Foundation.
Photo at top: A scene in the White House with Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy (courtesy Fox Searchlight).