I. Plot Synopsis

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Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

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John Trumbull’s ‘Declaration of Independence.’ 1819

So, first of all, happy Independence day. My conservative friends may not believe me, but part of the reason I spend so much time criticizing politics in this country is because I think it really is a very great country. One of my favorite JFK quotes is “This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country.”

[This is the same reason that when I write about football, I critique good teams–it’s way more interesting than criticizing lousy ones.]

With that in mind, let’s talk about the Supreme Court.

First off, let me talk about Chief Justice Roberts.  I can’t figure him out.  Liberals I know say he is just a Conservative who rules however the Conservatives want something to go.  But that’s obviously not true; or else he would have struck down the Affordable Care Act. So he isn’t just some guy who rules based on the party line.  He has some kind of judicial philosophy–the question is, what is it?

Second item: the latest Supreme Court case in the news is the Hobby Lobby case, wherein Chief Justice Roberts ruled, along with the Majority, that employers don’t have to pay for insurance plans covering contraceptives.  I’ve heard a lot of criticism of this ruling, saying it is a disaster for women and a re-ignition of the “War on Women” from 2012.

My opinion? Yes, but it’s even worse than that.

The trouble is, when religion gets involved, things always get murky.  I don’t want to insult anybody’s beliefs, but the fact of the matter is that religion is based on faith, not legal precedent or factual evidence.  Which is fine, but it makes it tough to deal with in a legal case, because it is about unquantifiable, supernatural things.  As the greatest legal mind in the English-speaking world, the Lord Chancellor from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, said:

Ah! but, my good sir, you mustn’t tell us what she [Chorused nature] told you — it’s not evidence. Now an affidavit from a thunderstorm, or a few words on oath from a heavy shower, would meet with all the attention they deserve.

There are a lot of different religions. And all of them give different versions of what God is supposed to have said what to do or not do.

My question is: how far does this really go? What if I’m a business owner and my religion forbids all health insurance?  Can I not provide coverage?  For that matter, if I’m a business owner, and my religion forbids following government safety mandates, can I get out of that, too?

Obviously, this Court ruling doesn’t really mean that. But the question is, why doesn’t it mean that? Because that is the implied logical precedent, it seems to me.

So, you have probably seen the news about the former White House intern’s book about her relationship with President Kennedy. 

I hate reading about stuff like that. The only book I can recall reading that comes close to being described as a “tell-all” about such personal things is I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. He was one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and indeed it was a very interesting book, but I still felt dirty reading the parts about Zevon’s sordid personal life.

I believe that character does matter for politicians, don’t get me wrong. And when a current politician is found out to be involved in such a personal scandal, it is worthwhile to investigate, and the public deserves to know about it. The Newt Gingriches of the world may object, but such is the price you pay when running for office.

Some object on the grounds that this story is rather old news. Well, yes, but I like history, and I believe it’s important that the truth about historical events be told. I don’t believe in censoring such information to preserve people’s reputations. So, there’s no harm in bringing it up now.

But with all that said, it kind of bothers me that people are so fascinated by the story. I guess because it feels so shallow to me, I can’t help but feel that the press coverage of it is a bit much when you consider the relative unimportance of the story. It’s not like it’s news that Kennedy had affairs; it’s just news that now we have a detailed account of one of them. And frankly, I find it kind of weird that anyone would want the details.

It does, however, confirm my long-held opinion that Kennedy was rather overrated as a President. I always felt he was too cavalier about serious matters–e.g. nuclear war–and this kind of corroborates that. But there was plenty of evidence for that already, in my opinion.

A new Gallup poll puts Ronald Reagan as the nation’s greatest President. Then it’s Lincoln, Clinton, Kennedy, Washington and FDR.

Yes, in that order.

My opinion: Lincoln, Washington and FDR are the only ones out of that crowd who could conceivably have any claim to the title of “greatest President”. And where is Eisenhower? I mean, maybe he wasn’t the greatest President ever, but he ought to have been in the running.

Also, George H. W. Bush should have gotten more votes than George W. Bush, in my opinion. Finally, I think President Obama shouldn’t even be eligible for this poll yet, since he’s currently President and we have yet to see what he’ll do the rest of his term and if he’ll win re-election.

Conservative film critic John Nolte has capped off his series on the “Top 25 Left-Wing films” with Oliver Stone’s JFK. In the preamble, explaining why he considers it a “liberal” film, Nolte writes: “Simply put, the Left cannot psychologically or emotionally reconcile their undying hatred of the Vietnam War with their undying love for the same president who escalated our involvement in that war.”

Well, I’m sure Nolte would consider me part of the “Left”, and I don’t believe in any of those conspiracy theories. In any event, however, whether Nolte’s claims are true or false is irrelevant for my purposes. What I want to discuss is the Republicans‘ peculiar attitude towards President Kennedy. For they too seem to have paradoxical feelings towards him. As in, for example, the conservative wiki Conservapedia’s analysis of him as “basically a conservative”.

Republicans have come lately to believe that his tax-cuts were the precursor to President Reagan’s supply-side, Laffer curve-based tax cutting program. (That Kennedy was in fact following the advice of Keynesian economics is strangely forgotten.)

They also seem to admire Kennedy for having a hawkish approach to foreign policy–and there is clearly some truth to this. After all, he had been a military man, and no doubt he certainly found himself in quite a few showdowns with Khrushchev. His anti-communism is hailed by the Republican party of today.

The Republican admiration for Kennedy isn’t complete, of course. There are still times when they find it useful to portray Kennedy as just another Liberal president, to be reviled like Woodrow Wilson and FDR. In what is perhaps the seminal work of the Tea-Party canon, Liberal Fascism, you can really see author Jonah Goldberg wrestling with this dilemma.

Goldberg doesn’t like a lot of Kennedy’s behavior in office, and draws upon it to further his “Liberalism resembles fascism” argument. But when, he gets right down to it, Goldberg can’t just lump JFK in with the rest of the supposedly “liberal fascists”, writing: “While not a modern liberal himself, JFK was turned after his death into a martyr to the religion of government.” Goldberg writes that Kennedy’s myth was “hijacked” by Lyndon Johnson to advance his own brand of (you know it) “liberal fascism”.

This is interesting because it illustrates just how complex the Republicans’ relationship to JFK’s legacy really is. Maybe they just think it would be too cruel to openly despise a man so tragically cut down, or maybe–as a cynic might put it–they are simply looking to do a bit of myth-hijacking for themselves.

Or maybe they feel compelled to offer gestures of bipartisanship, but cannot seriously claim that there was anything good about more recent Democratic Presidents for fear of implying that they were in fact legitimate politicians with reasonable ideas. Such an implication would no doubt draw a sharp rebuke from Rush Limbaugh. So, they are forced to reach back nearly a half-century to find some Democrat who they can like without risking much ideological ground.

I’ve been reading the John F. Kennedy/Ted Sorensen book Profiles in Courage. It’s a good read so far, though a little slow. Anyway though, what I wanted to mention here was that Kennedy/Sorensen quotes Congressman John Steven McGroarty as writing to a constituent in 1934:

“One of the countless drawbacks of being in Congress is that I am compelled to receive impertinent letters from a jackass like you in which you say I promised to have the Sierra Madre mountains reforested and I have been in Congress two months and haven’t done it. Will you please take two running jumps and go to hell.”

Forgive me a bit of nostalgia–if you can be nostalgic for a time when you weren’t even alive–but it seems even insults were better in the old days.

Today is the 47th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a tragedy in which many believe, to quote Kennedy’s Secret Service agent Clint Hill: “the Age of Innocence died”; and which famously–or infamously–brought about many conspiracy theories.

Personally, I never bought in to any of the conspiracy theories. They’re all just too convoluted to work, in my opinion.

I did see Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. It was a good movie, but it didn’t do anything to make me think there really was a conspiracy.

This past September 26 was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Kennedy/Nixon debate in the 1960 Presidential Campaign. It is famous for being the first televised Presidential debate, and subsequently as an example of the influence television could have on a campaign.

Everyone knows the story: Nixon looked haggard and ill, Kennedy looked fit and healthy. Some say that Kennedy’s appearance in that debate was what won him the election. I feel that is only partially true–what helped Kennedy here was not just his good looks, but mainly his charisma, which was now being shown to a wider audience than in any previous election.

In fact, to me, this debate marks the moment when, because of television, charisma emerged as the most powerful force in U.S. politics. Nixon represented what Max Weber called “Legal Domination“, whereas Kennedy represented “Charismatic Domination“. My view is that Kennedy’s victory demonstrated that television had now enabled charismatic domination to come to the fore.

The real question, I guess, is: was this a good thing or a bad thing?