Saturday, December 24, 2016

Back Again to that "One Brief Shining Moment"

Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.

Jackie Kennedy's 4-hour 1963 interview with Theodore H. White, one week to the day after the assassination (and the Life magazine article which came from that interview) created the Kennedy Camelot myth. Jackie's studied creation of that myth in that interview is the dramatic device through which the movie Jackie brilliantly and beautifully retells the familiar story in an unfamiliar but powerfully moving way. (In the movie, the journalist, played by Billy Crudup, is not identified as White - presumably to facilitate the interview's use as a dramatic backdrop for flashbacks and other material not in the actual interview.)

The film takes some liberties with known historical facts and creates conversations and events which no one alive today ever witnessed. But it is a drama not a documentary. And it does a superb job of recreating the event and the principal personalities - notably Jackie herself (perfectly played by Natalie Portman). And there are enough flashbacks to the pre-assassination Jackie - especially to her famous 1961 televised tour of the White House - that help the historically unverifiable aspects of her portrayal ring more true. And, despite the  high tension generated by the circumstances and by Jackie's own ambivalences, all the characters come across as significantly sympathetic - except perhaps for Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) whose politically petty and mean feud with the new President is repeatedly on display to no one's benefit.

The "artiness" of the film, the constant flashbacks, and the historically inaccurate conflation of certain events may make the movie harder to follow for younger viewers who have no memory of the actual events. But the film's appeal will likely be mainly to an older audience that does remember. Obviously, JFK's assassination was my generation's traumatic, paradigm-shifting event  In addition, I think my generation cannot get enough of Kennedy (and the Kennedy era as Camelot) not because he accomplished all that much as president or even because that was really such a wonderful time in history, but because what came after has been so dreadful in comparison.

The film focuses in on the historical Jackie's personal struggle to cope with the sudden loss of her husband (and the White House), having to mourn and somehow put her life back together (and that of her children) at the same time, and her determination to preserve her husband's historical legacy. The latter is her motivation not just for her Camelot myth-making but for crafting just the right ritual for the state funeral. In the process, she became mythical herself, the one whose queenly grace steered the country through that terrible weekend, as the interviewer acknowledges near the end

It is somewhat hard to decipher what to make of the role of the priest (John Hurt) in the film. Her conversations with him seem mainly a vehicle for her to work through the trauma and her mourning (not only for the President but for her marriage and her two already dead children). But the movie practically gives him the last word, a word that not only speaks to her continuing to live but to everyone who, to use the priest's image, in spite of everything gets up every morning and makes coffee.

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