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Spouse and symbol

Larrain's 'Jackie' an uneven story of the public and the private.


'I DON'T SMOKE': A widowed Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) grapples with grief under the microscope in Pablo Larrain's "Jackie."
  • 'I DON'T SMOKE': A widowed Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) grapples with grief under the microscope in Pablo Larrain's "Jackie."

There is a small room at the Vatican, next to the Sistine Chapel, dubbed the "Room of Tears," where a newly chosen pope goes to prepare himself for his public presentation. The nickname of the room reportedly comes from the emotional state of many a new pope, and one can well understand — the transformation from a person into a symbol, from a free man into a figurehead constrained by weight of the past and the expectations of the worldwide faithful. Who but a sociopath would not shed a tear at such a moment?

The pope, of course, is a monarch, invested with the symbolic value that we Americans historically withheld from our leaders, at least until the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when one man was transformed from a president with a mediocre record into the representative of a Camelot lost to us forever.

Pablo Larrain's "Jackie" explores this transformation through the figure of Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), and opens with her being interviewed by Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life magazine on Nov. 29, 1963, less than a week after her husband's death. Right off the bat, she makes it clear to her interviewer that she will have an active role in shaping his narrative, that she gets to control the story (telling him "I don't smoke" as she stubs out yet another cigarette). The movie thus progresses through flashback, following Jacqueline shortly after the assassination and on through the funeral arrangements, with Portman depicting a woman obsessed with elevating her husband's legacy. She even models her husband's funeral after Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession to differentiate him from the likes of James Garfield and William McKinley, other presidents cut down in office.

T.H. White gets the story, but there is another interviewer in this movie, one Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt), an Irish priest brought in by the staff to talk to Jacqueline. "God does not want a story. God wants the truth," he tells her, and so he gets it — the story of the frustrated wife aware of her husband's dalliances, a woman who believes that she could have been happier in any other situation, as a shopkeeper or a stenographer, married to an ugly and unassuming husband. In a similar vein, Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) laments that his brother's truncated term in office only accomplished solving a Cuban crisis that he caused in the first place.

If this theme of story vs. truth, the necessity of myth, never quite gels, it's because "Jackie" is a searing portrait of personal grief in a situation, but one in which emotions cannot always be indulged. While she lost a husband, the entire world was thrown into chaos with JFK's murder, and it's hard for Jacqueline to get her bearings when the whole world remains spinning. When we finally flash back to the assassination, we see her husband being shot, Secret Service agent Clint Hill (David Caves) jumping on top of the car as it races off, and then the long car ride at top speed to the hospital. No one comforts her as she cradles the broken head of her husband because her husband is the president and there are "bigger" things to think about, and her attempts to grieve and to plan the funeral continually collide against political necessity. Portman's Jacqueline is a woman torn between raw pain and the dictates of her station, and her performance is perfectly uneven.

If the movie at times feels like it's trying to explore two different themes simultaneously, maybe the answer lies in the irony of the mythmaking enterprise. Robbed of a real connection to humanity in this crisis, Jacqueline Kennedy transformed her husband into a symbol of human aspiration. Say what you will about her legacy (and that of first ladies in general), but she actually gave her husband what the priests and preachers have long promised everyone — life after death.

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