JUST ONE WEEK after the assassination of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy invited respected political journalist Theodore H. White to conduct a personal interview. During their discussion, she strongly suggested that the article should include a direct comparison of President John F. Kennedy’s short time in office to Camelot, the then-wildly popular Broadway musical about King Arthur. And so, in his essay for Life magazine, White acquiesced—describing the Kennedy administration as “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians behind the walls held back.”
It was all hyperbole, of course, and he knew it.
Later, White admitted the comparison was written as a favor to the widow of a just-assassinated president, and at least to him, was “a misreading of history. The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed.”
While that may have been truth, historians and the public alike bought into the comparison, coming to characterize JFK’s short two-year stint in office as a magical time cut cruelly short by an assassin’s bullet. Less is remembered about the controversial aspects of the president’s term: his extramarital indiscretions, numerous health issues, promotion of the space race for reasons of prestige and military advancement, and a failed attempt at overthrowing Castro that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
It’s this carefully constructed veneer of Camelot that rests at the center of director Pablo Larraín’s beautiful and heartbreaking Jackie. Using Theodore H. White’s interview as its springboard, the film swerves through time, documenting the tenure and tragedies of then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (brilliantly played by Natalie Portman).
Upon entering the White House, the first lady was determined to establish a legacy. In a grainy black-and-white recreation of the her televised tour of the White House, Portman’s Jackie robotically reveals the intense care she put into the building’s interior design, pointedly noting that America deserved and expected everything to be “the best”—from furnishings to art on the walls to violinists performing at their galas. In the film, this obsession with perfection and veneer provides a stark contrast to JFK’s assassination, when the beauty the first lady worked so hard to construct fell apart tragically. But even in her darkest hour, Jackie clung to this sense of beauty and order, stage-managing JFK’s funeral procession to match the grandeur of Abraham Lincoln’s. The film doesn’t shy away from Jacqueline’s complicated reasoning, or the cold-hearted political maneuvering of the incoming president and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.
Portman’s portrayal is nothing less than amazing, perfectly capturing Jacqueline’s intense drive, strength, occasional pettiness, and overwhelming grief. She, along with Larraín and a talented cast, go a long way to reshape our shared memories of Kennedy as simply a fashion plate in a pink pillbox hat, revealing a figure far more complicated and heroic. Jackie is a stunning, heart-wrenching meditation on truth, the American ideal, and the incredible pressure on first ladies—women who represent just as much, if not more, than their husbands.
For Jacqueline Kennedy, perception was the exact equal of reality—if a country in turmoil over Vietnam, civil rights, and nuclear brinkmanship saw beauty and order within the White House, then wasn’t that perception preferable to the idea of chaos? Larraín brings this concept into sharp focus along with Portman’s nuanced performance, which portrays the first lady as someone who recognized the harshness and danger of reality, and instead chose to give Americans hope—and magic—to cling to. In the end, and as far as history is concerned, it worked. Jacqueline’s magic became our reality.