Movies: ‘Jackie’ examines the paradox of the ‘Camelot’ myth

In "Jackie," Natalie Portman portrays Jacqueline Kennedy, the glamorous, elusive, complex wife of a President whose myth has long exceeded the time he served in office.

Promitional image for "Jackie," starring Natalie Portman. (Courtesy Fox Searchlight)

WASHINGTON, January 29, 2017 – The first few notes of Mica Levi’s score for the new Jacqueline Kennedy biopic “Jackie” are uplifting at the outset of the film. But almost immediately, the music somehow starts to wobble, creating a sense of uneasiness as Jackie Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman’s) image appears on the.

Levi’s music fundamentally underscores one of the prevalent ideas driving Pablo Larrain’s new film, namely that Jackie Kennedy seems almost like a tempest-tossed boat that is about to capsize. She is a woman desperately trying to keep her composure and the exquisite façade she has so carefully constructed, even as the fates seem determined to tear every aspect of her young life apart.

Natalie Portman at Cannes, 2015. (Image via Wikipedia entry on “Jackie,” public domain/CC 3.0)

“Jackie” covers a little under two years in the life of Jackie Kennedy, focusing on day to day happenings ranging from a CBS tour of the White House she conducts to her interview with Theodore White for his Life magazine feature story. The narrative explores the highs and lows of her life, as it is re-defined by her role as the First Lady of the United States and wife of President John F. Kennedy.

But director Larrain never quite succeeds in making his narrative an easy one to follow. The story line weaves in and out of key points in the life of its subject, leaving an assorted mix of poignant but messy details of her attempt to come to terms with her suddenly prominent position in the great American.

One of the most important things to remember about Jackie Kennedy’s brief but intense time in the White House is just how young she was when her husband entered office. When JFK took the oath of office in January, 1961, she was not yet 32, an extraordinarily early age to be thrust suddenly into the world spotlight.

The JFK presidency has been covered endlessly since the president’s assassination in 1963, and it’s still going on. One of the main narratives surrounding his brief presidency – something that extends throughout American history in the 1960s – is the loss of innocence by the American people due to the assassination and the decade of violence and protest that was soon to arise.

As First Couple, the Kennedys radiated youth and vigor, exciting the rising Boomer generation, inspiring them to do something, anything to right the wrongs in America and in the world by joining new government programs like the Peace Corps.

Given her age, this Camelot idealism is intricately intertwined with Jackie Kennedy’s life, and this is a vital fact the film refuses to shy away from as it weaves the social milieu into the definition of her character.

The aforementioned interview with Theodore White actually concludes Jackie Kennedy’s story, at least in terms of her life as a Kennedy. Yet it’s also the first thing that happens in this film. It takes place about a month after her husband’s death, a time during which Jackie Kennedy seemed to be at her most jaded—understandable in light of her recent family tragedy, which was also a national one.

The other aspect of this interview scene isn’t just how cagey she is – her distrust of the media is in fully display during the interview scenes – but how purposeful she is. This act is juxtaposed with the second extended set piece that plays throughout the film: her tour of the White House conducted for airing as a CBS-TV special. As opposed to her steely, purposeful focus in the interview with White, during the CBS tour special the audience sees a Jackie who is only slightly younger. But the span between these two scenarios is emotionally light years apart in terms of emotional age.

This early Jackie Kennedy is relatively unsure of herself. She often seems on the verge of undercutting her own carefully crafted persona. She may not be fully aware of the power she possesses, although she’s consistently reminded of this by her assistant, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), the one true confidant she has at her side during the entire film. Despite how convinced everyone else is of her ability during this special – Nancy is the only person who says this at the time – Jackie is much more skeptical.

In the film as well as political mythology, the most enduring theme of the brief Kennedy administration was the notion that JFK’s presidency brought to life, however fleetingly, the idealized notion of King Arthur’s court, Camelot, as depicted on Broadway. “Camelot” is how many still refer to this presidency, either as a sign of reverence or, in our own century, to mock its sordid undercurrent.

The idea of Camelot as it is tied to JFK, flows out of his love for the 1960 Loewe and Lerner musical, which is deployed in the climactic scene of the film. This enduring, mythological connection was entirely the construct of Jackie Kennedy, though that fact seems to have been lost in the mists of time.

The “Camelot” imagery still promulgated by JFK acolytes involves liberal theology and mythology, one in which a young and handsome hero transforms his government and his people into a virtuous nation that honors the arts and the intellect, seeking as its goal some kind of universal human nobility and ideal goodness. Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected at the time, so youth and hope are intertwined with mythology when it comes to these dewy-eyed narratives.

The idea that the JFK presidency was somehow a new Camelot was an appealing notion the public latched onto fairly quickly in light of the president’s spectacular (and televised) death, which seemed like a martyrdom to many at the time.

We live in an age of revisionism, however, in which our heroes, real and imagined, are routinely torn down by writers and historians, often for ideological reasons. Naturally, then, there has been pushback concerning the use of the “Camelot,” mythology, with historians, including Theodore White himself, calling the idea of JFK’s presidency being Camelot “a myth.” It’s one of the reasons critics of JFK scoff at the idea today. Yet any iteration of “Camelot” has always been a myth, and it seems clear that is something Jackie Kennedy knew all along, even as she promoted it.

One of the first things Jackie Kennedy says to Theodore White when they sit down for their interview is that she used to do what he’s doing right now. He isn’t quite paying attention to her (a common theme throughout the movie) and in a confused tone has her repeat it again, only barely giving the answer any mind this time around. She makes it abundantly clear during the interview that while White is trying to exhume JFK to quickly assert his legacy, his widow is studying the interviewer the whole time, crafting the greater Kennedy myth in the process.

To a certain extent, the presidency is about perception and perception always changes depending on who is in the office. Jackie Kennedy – and the film – was concerned with how the public and the world saw the JFK Presidency. Jackie obviously wasn’t involved in policy issues the way that other First Ladies have been. Instead, her mission statement was to preserve the prestige of her husband and the Presidency. She wanted the history of the office, and by that token the country, to mean something substantial, filled with meaning and promise.

That other major scenario, the tour of the White House, defines the actual work Jackie put into defining the legacy of the presidency. She delicately walked TV viewers through her restoration of the relative extravagance of the White House, in which she combined modern design sense with the rich history of the various men and women who, over history, had once lived in the place she now called home.

The Tour of the White House is important, as it also gives us a clue as to the actions Jackie later took in the way that, in the midst of a national tragedy, she planned and fought for the still memorable funeral pageant that brought the body of her late husband through official Washington to his final resting place on the heights of Arlington National Cemetery, just across the river in Arlington, Virginia.

Riding with Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) in the funeral cortege, Jackie Kennedy begins polling the nurse and the driver how much they know about previous presidents who have been assassinated. Not so much that they’ve been assassinated – a detail she leaves out – but rather what they generally know about each of them. Somewhat obviously, only Abraham Lincoln any real, viable answer. It seems tangential to the larger point. But this was how Jackie Kennedy’s mind tended to work in terms of constructing a new mythology.

While details like this might seem morbid, her behavior was clearly a sign of an individual dealing with PTSD. Little involving the bloody horror of Jack Kennedy’s death was revealed to the public during those more circumspect times. But we can now understand the impact of the horrible memories of Jacqueline Kennedy as she watched in real time, the savagery of the bullet that shattered her husband’s skull.

In light of those events, we can sense that in the funeral cortege and the aftermath, Jackie Kennedy must have desperately searched to find a way to move forward through this epic event. But the tragedy and its denouement also reflected how she viewed her husband’s legacy.

On a certain level, she was determined not to have the last, lingering image of JFK for most Americans remain that gruesome spectacle of his shocking death. The shot itself is a relatively fleeting moment within this film. But its power lingers in that we also continue to ponder how quickly this and all violence happens.

This is where Micah Levi’s film score takes on a more insidious, working very much in the way operatic singers are supported by the orchestra, whose music often provides a deep or sinister counterpoint to what the operatic character is expressing.

As the film progresses, Jackie is constantly, though subtly undermined and dismissed by the men with whom she interacts. What noticeable is how each one of them laments what could have been done, in the process revealing themselves to be limited in their thinking, unlike the woman they try to blithely dismiss as a lightweight.

While JFK’s shadow looms large, he’s not really a major character in “Jackie” and is functionally absent in a narrative sense, save when Jackie Kennedy is talking to Father Richard McSorley (the late John Hurt). Here, she becomes conflicted about her ambitions as a wife and a mother, intertwining the many faults of her husband with her own and openly wondering what exactly is the point of her own life. She doesn’t find much solace from Father McSorley, who doesn’t quite grasp her existential crisis.

The film wraps up with Theodore White relaying his story to the Life magazine offices for transcription. In the view of White, Jackie Kennedy has been a somewhat difficult interview subject, so he holds his tongue when she edits his notes on the story. He chalks it up to her status as a grieving widow, but instead, betrays his own myopia.

White feels he’s doing her a favor by letting her tell her husband’s story. Instead, he ends up missing the forest for the trees, ultimately dismissing Jackie Kennedy and the scope of her influence. The old adage claims that “behind every great man there’s a great woman.” Jackie had the temerity to believe that the woman should be the story.

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