Everyone my age remembers where they were when we heard the news that President Kennedy was shot and killed. I was in Mt. Vernon, New York, driving in the center of the town with my mother. The radio program to which we were listening abruptly stopped and they announced the president’s death. All the cars, including mine, halted. No one could move. My mother began crying. No one ever imagined such a tragedy happening. That fateful day and the days following are portrayed in Jackie, a thoughtful and eerie film that imagines the tragedy through the eyes and emotions of Jackie, the first lady.
The film begins with Jackie Kennedy being interviewed by a journalist a week after the assassination in late November, 1963. During the conversation, there are flashbacks to memorable moments of the Kennedy presidency, with particular focus on Jackie’s role as first lady. Her television tour of the White House, which attracted an audience of 56 million viewers, is one important highlight that reveals the public and private sides of Jackie. She is a person who does not like to be in the spotlight, but she understands her role as the president’s wife and does her best to enhance her husband’s image in the media.
The film eventually recreates the assassination in Dallas, and the scene brought back painful memories as I watched. It was the first time I experienced a sense of loss. Even though John Kennedy was not a relative, he was a father figure to many Americans, and his untimely death was embedded on our collective memory.
The tragedy prompts Jackie to think about presidents who died while in office, but she focuses on Lincoln who is remembered with great love and affection. She reads books on his funeral, which included a march through Washington, D.C., and wants to replicate the processional for her husband’s funeral. Moreover, she wants his burial plot to be at Arlington National Cemetery, a resting place befitting an American hero, rather than in the family plot.
To get through this difficult time, Jackie speaks to a priest to try to gain some understanding of God’s ways. He reminds her: “There comes a time in man’s search for meaning when one realizes that there are no answers. And when you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization, you accept it or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching… I have lived a blessed life. And yet every night, when I climb into bed, turn off the lights, and stare in to the dark, I wonder… Is this all there is? But then, when morning comes, we all wake up and make a pot of coffee.” It seems a simple response, but indeed it is a profound message for Jackie. We cannot understand God’s ways, but we need to endure in spite of pain and disappointment.
The priest’s words reveal a Jewish sensibility. After a relative dies, Jewish law requires shiva, a seven-day period of intense mourning in which one stays at home and is consoled by family and friends. At the end of the seven days, it is a custom to take a short walk around the block to remind ourselves that life goes on in the wake of tragedy. The memory of the loved one remains, but we continue with life.
Lori Palatnik, a Jewish educator, writes: “The concrete act of physically stepping outside, walking around the block, and coming back in, says that this house and our relationship with this house will now be renewed.” We do not remain mired in tragedy. Life beckons.
The movie affirms this notion as it concludes with the song “Camelot,” the optimistic lyrics of which personified for many the Kennedy presidency. Jackie’s struggle to come to terms with loss is palpable, but in the end she moves beyond the pain to a new life with her children, family, and friends.