Lots of spoilers ahead. Also, I’m retelling some of the movie scenes from memory alone, so the dialogue cited might not be 100% accurate.
I recently went to see the much-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film ‘Jackie’. I entered the theatre expecting to watch a story that centred around the grief felt by a recently-widowed Jackie Kennedy, and the struggles within the First family and the White House to move forward after such a tragic event. However, to my surprise, the theme that stood out the most and permeated every scene of the film was one that went beyond US history, and arguably even politics. That is, how do we truly build a legacy that will outlast our lives and leave its footprints in history.
This theme became apparent during the scene when Jackie and her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy are in JFK’ hearse. During this scene, Jackie asks the driver and the attendant whether they remember who William McKinley or James Garfield were. None of the men do.
‘They were both US presidents that were assassinated in office’, she replies, and in that moment reveals her concern, her fear that her once-beloved husband could possibly meet this same fate of being forgotten by the average person.
By way of contrast, she then asks the same men whether they know who Abraham Lincoln was. Unsurprisingly, they do.
‘What did Abraham Lincoln do?’ She then asks them.
‘He won the Civil War’
From that moment onwards in the movie, it is clear that Jackie wants JFK to be remembered as a Lincoln, not like a McKiley or a Garfield. Lincoln becomes the ideal, so much so that his own funeral procession is used as a template for JFK’s. This was a wish that many of her close advisors questioned, given the security concerns implicated by such a display. Many might have though of this endeavour -as well as of many others during her time as FLOTUS- as one of her ‘Vanity Projects’. In fact, her intentions went beyond that.
She was resolute in her wish of giving her husband the funeral that a President of his significance deserved, of burying him in a worthy ground, of having as many foreign heads of state as the ocassion granted. It was almost as if she was trying to nudge history throughout this very tragic moment by pointing to it just how important, how memorable, how cherished this man truly was.
The parallels to Lincoln in Jackie’s quest to define JFK’s legacy continue as she and Bobby find themselves at the Abraham Lincoln room at the White House. During this scene, Bobby remembers how Lincoln:
‘With the stroke of his pen, he freed 3 million people from slavery’
But his tone is not one of pride, but rather of anger and resentment. This is the very high bar against which he wants to measure the achievements of his brother’s administration. He questions whether they will only be remembered as the ‘beautiful people’.
‘Yes, people will remember Jack for how he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis’ he says, ‘but, there’s so much more we could have achieved: Civil Rights…. we could have defeated communism!’
This was one of the few moments when the movie truly touched on politics and JFK’s government. And it is here that we see that painful counterfactual, or what could have been. What more could have been achieved for the US and arguably for the world had his life not been dramatically cut short.
The emphasis in history is also evident throughout the whole storyline of her interview with Billy Crudrup. Here they revisit how Jackie opened the doors of the White House, the ‘People’s House’ as she called it, in order to broadcast a tour of it. The footage that is re-enacted in the movie mostly shows Jackie telling reporters how she carried restoration and redecoration works in order to reflect more of the history of the place, as well as of the Presidents who had previously inhabited it. This appears to be an exercise in highlighting the legacy of the men who preceded her husband, while at the same time carving up his place next to them.
Crudrup also at times reminds Jackie of what their own legacy will be. He praises Jackie’s efforts in ‘livening’ and bringing art back to the White House. But more importantly perhaps, he tells her how ‘losing a President is like losing a father’, and how she was exemplary as the nation’s mother through that tough time.
And what better way to wrap up this theme than with the story of Camelot. A famous musical of the time enjoyed by the Fist Couple, which tells the story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. This is the myth that Jackie wanted imprinted in the collective imagination. A story of how her husband’s presidency was a special time in American history, and the most overt display of her almost obsession with their legacy.
‘For a brief shining moment, there was a Camelot’ Jackie narrates towards the end of the movie. This often-ridiculed comparison is her culminating gesture, and goes beyond characterising a historical legacy, and into the realm of myth-making. And while we might not necessarily remember the Kennedy years as a fairytale, if the fifty-odd years that have passed since his death are any indication, he will more likely join the Lincolns rather than the McKinleys or the Garfields in the collective memory.