Jackie and the the shattered psyche of a nation

Perhaps because I went to see Jackie on the eve of Donald Trump’s Inauguration, it assumed an especial significance.

The mystique of the Presidency has long fascinated me. There is something almost cultish about the way Americans refer to “My President’, rather than THE President.

Given the jaw-dropping ignorance of some Americans – well, least-ways those questioned by Jay Leno or Alan Watters on TV.

– I can’t help being less than sanguine about Jackie as box-office gold.

In Watter’s World, Jesse Watters goes around with a camera and mike and asks people questions like ‘Who fought the Civil War?’ “What is the capital of New York?” Their responses elicit gales of laughter.

Certainly its a dot on the cards that I would not be able to find a millennial who knows who ‘Jackie’ was.

The second resistance to the movie is that of a man who once told me that he couldn’t be bothered to watch Titanic because ‘I know how it ends.’

But the assassination of John F Kennedy is part of the iconography of American History.

The idea of the Kennedy years as Camelot became an enduring trope and, for some, a maddening lie. In 2011 Christopher Hitchens wrote that Jackie’s “winsome innocence,” was “a soft cover for a specific sort of knowingness and calculation.” Hitchens saw Jackie as ‘tacky Jackie.”

Savvy, manipulative, disingenuous—and lacking the class for which she was so admired.

It was Jackie who coined the Camelot mythology, a week after her husband’s assassination.

Her calculatedness was awe-inspiring. In the midst of her trauma she plans a funeral that she knows the entire world will watch. She has the presence of mind to realize I have to cement my husband’s legacy somehow.

‘People’s memories are maybe the fuel that keeps us alive’ as Haruki Marukami said.

“When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical, but I’m so ashamed of myself—all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Jackie not only married John F. Kennedy; she invented his legacy.

This cultural reference to Camelot ended up being more powerful than any list of policy accomplishments ever could be.

She was a smoker but ensured that she was never photographed with a cigarette. She actively edited her conversations with journalists, reporters, historians, always conscious of what the public knew.

She told Arthur Schlesinger Jnr. when the subject of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights is raised, that she regarded Dr. King as a moral monster who ‘goes as far as to arrange orgies in Washington hotels. “

As Hitchens observed “She can have been in a position to say this only if, as a special treat, she had been cut in on the salacious surveillance tapes by which J. Edgar Hoover kept the enemies of the Kennedy clan (and Kennedy himself) under his thumb.

How much else did she know? Did she know about the president’s stupefying consumption of uppers and downers, for example?

How often did she have to close her eyes or her ears as the door practically banged on the heels of a departing mistress or hooker?

***

Chilean-born director Pablo Larrain recreated those iconic moments in the first lady’s life: the Dealey Plaza assassination horror in Dallas; the unseemly (some said) haste with which LBJ was sworn in on Air Force One, the funeral procession in Washington. Earlier, the 1962 televised White House tour conducted by Jackie.

Natalie Portman was born to play ‘Jackie.’

Her breathy almost Monroe-eque diction, her exaggerated finishing school poise and her tiny, vulnerable physicality are perfect. Each frame is compelling. The juxtaposition of Jackie’s close-to-madness grief, played out in the elegant and timeless Maison Blanche is powerful.

The images of Portman’s crumpled tiny body clinging to the wreckage of her life, attempting to assuage the pain by swigging vodka and taking tablets reminds one that as CS Lewis observed ‘Grief is akin to terror.’

Larraine’s visual references are wide. The klatsch of umbrella-carrying aids at Arlington evoke the Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Jackie walks up an avenue with her priest (John Hurt) and one thinks of Meindert Hobbema’s The Avenue.

First-time screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (his day job is running the NBC Today show) provides a script awash one-liners and epithets.

The characters are authentic and convincing.

Oppenheim based his writing on extensive research, archival material, and documents of how Jackie actually responded to the murder of John F. Kennedy.

The movie shows the poly-facets of Jackie’s character and personality and particularly the different faces that she presented to the world.

There are flashes of her – unfiltered. At times her rage and frustration are palpable, her resentment is deep. She is losing her place in the universe and wondering whether it was worth it, and what, in the end, they’ll have to show for it all.

Composer Mica Levi’s musical score is the year’s finest. The music is an integral part of the movie. It is the musical reflection of the shattered psyche of a nation, trying to deal with tragedy with dignity.

Throughout her dreamy nightmare it was hard to say “what was real, and what was performance,” as she says to confidant William Walton, played by Richard E. Grant.

***

I interviewed Swazi-born Richard E Grant in Twickenham decades ago.

He gave me a glass of Aqua Libra. Water infused with herbs.

Absolutely delicious.

I have never been able to find it anywhere.