At Myrna Loy
When history strikes, most of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing.
In August 1974, I was camping in Ontario, Canada, when Nixon resigned.
In January 1986, I was driving through Seattle’s University district when a radio news bulletin reported that the Challenger had exploded.
In July 1989, I was at my future in-laws home to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
In November 1989, I was at a motel in Powell, Wyoming, when the Berlin Wall fell.
In September 2001, I was sitting at my computer at home with the TV on when planes hit the Twin Towers in New York.
Although every one of these events was profound, the event that had the most devastating effect on me occurred during my morning classes at Queen Anne High School in Seattle.
On Nov. 22, 1963, in my junior year of high school at Queen Anne High in Seattle, I was walking between classes when the news spread like wildfire through the hallways: “The president has been shot.”
I still recall that shock. The young vigorous president with the Boston accent was dead.
Radios and TVs were turned on during lunch, as we tried to keep up with fast-breaking news.
I was in shock, as was the country.
The new film “Jackie” recounts those dark days in American history through the perspective of the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.
The complex script weaves back and forth in time, starting with a visit by writer Theodore H. White to interview Jackie about the death of JFK, not long after the assassination. History tells us that Jackie demanded this interview become a flattering portrait of the “Camelot years” of the Kennedy presidency for Life magazine.
White, who won a Pulitzer, was a writer of too much integrity to allow a subject to dictate his profile, but the short article (easily accessible online) “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue” does have a sentimental tone, including quoting the play “Camelot” once too often.
But the remainder of the interview includes vintage White details -- poetic, precise -- that made him the foremost presidential historian of his era. He writes of Jackie putting her wedding ring on Jack’s finger after he died, and then later retrieving it. He writes of a doctor giving her a rose that had been tangled in her husband’s clothes after the shooting. And he writes of Jackie thinking the shot was just a backfire until Gov. Connelly started shouting, “No, no, no, no, no…”
The film “Jackie” mirrors that interview in many ways.
First, the details of the shooting and the aftermath are vivid: We see her holding the bloody head of her husband; we see her arguments with the Secret Service as she insists the funeral include a public march along public-lined streets; we see her tell her kids their dad isn’t coming home; and we see the employees with boxes begin to move her out of the White House -- before she’s ready to move on.
Thanks to an Oscar-worthy performance by Natalie Portman, we are brought near tears often as when she walks amidst headstones at Arlington National Cemetery or when she admits, “I’m scared.”
This is not a First Lady in grief: this is a vulnerable wife and mother struggling to comprehend how her life has suddenly shattered. She slides between fear, anger and deep sadness.
Jackie is terribly alone in a very big house, with two young children at her side-- while a new president and his staff itch restlessly to take over.
The movie suffers from the same weakness as White’s interview as it forces the romantic Camelot template uncomfortably over the top of a compelling portrait of grief. I hoped the profile would not end with words from “Camelot,” but alas the script milks “one shining moment” one more tortured time.
However, thanks to Portman, we forgive the sentimentality and remember only a deep, textured capturing of how radically a life can change -- in the imperceptible moment it takes a gun to fire.
(Addendum: Nov. 22, 1963, was a costly day. Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis also died that day.)