Like most Baby Boomers, I remember exactly where I was on November 22, 1963. That, of course, was the dark day when President John F. Kennedy died in Dallas. Everyone I knew stayed glued to a TV set for the whole grim aftermath of that death: the slaying of apparent assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby on November 24; the heartbreaking funeral procession (complete with a riderless black horse and a little boy saluting his father’s casket) on November 25. For most of us young people, it was the saddest few days we’d ever known.
Central to that whole experience was our memory of the sad and lovely Jacqueline Kennedy, only 34 years old, bearing up under pressure with extraordinary grace. Seconds after the assassination, which took place while the two were riding in a Dallas motorcade, she was cradling her dying husband’s head in her lap. Then we caught a glimpse of her in news photos, standing shell-shocked in a blood-stained pink designer suit, as Kennedy’s successor was sworn into office aboard the plane bearing the late president’s body back to Washington DC. During the whole protracted funeral ritual, she was a somber but stately figure, a sheer black veil covering her exquisite face, one tiny child clutching each of her hands. In the iconic images of that time, she was the chief mourner, standing in for all of us as we dealt with our own sorrow.
Many years later, I visited the LBJ Library in Austin. Though it was a fascinating place, most of the exhibits have slipped my mind. But one letter on prominent display was unforgettable. It was from Jackie Kennedy to Lady Bird Johnson, apologizing for not having vacated the White House living quarters more quickly, because gathering up her youngsters’ toys and clothing was a big job. That letter was sent (as I recall) less than a week after the events of November 22. Jackie’s stiff-upper-lip graciousness continues to astound me; it has always made me wonder what kind of woman she was, beneath it all.
Now in Pablo Larrain’s new film, we are invited to ponder the Jacqueline Kennedy enigma. The focus is on the week following the assassination, with time-trips back to the glory days when her televised tour of the redecorated White House had the nation enthralled. The stunning portrayal of Jackie by Natalie Portman hints at a highly complicated woman, both vain and self-deprecating; both public-spirited and resentful of the public’s demands on her; both preturnaturally poised and coming unstrung. The film shows how, in the maelstrom that followed JFK’s death, Jackie strove mightily to hold the country together, and to preserve her husband’s legacy by introducing the metaphor—Camelot—that continues even today to be used to delineate the Kennedy years.
I have no way of knowing how closely this film follows the actual decision-making process that led to the pageantry of Kennedy’s very public funeral procession. But it makes sense that many governmental forces, wary of threats to the new president and other world leaders, would staunchly oppose the massive march from the White House to St. Matthew’s. It’s fascinating watching Portman’s Jackie negotiate (and sometimes re-negotiate) all the choices, sometimes in a state of barely tamped-down hysteria. Most unforgettable: watching her burning through a collection of shimmering gowns while simultaneously sweeping up the leavings of her family’s White House quarters.
One gripe, though. Peter Sarsgaard is a fine actor, but he doesn’t make a very convincing Robert Kennedy. In no world I know of was Bobby Kennedy a head taller than brother Jack.