There's a moment of sublime incongruity in "A Woman Named Jackie," NBC's six-hour miniseries about you-know-who that begins Sunday night.
The scene takes place not long after the assassination of President Kennedy. Jackie and her two young children have just taken up residence in a house in Washington.
As Caroline walks down the front steps of her home, a tourist comes up and hugs her and offers words of comfort. That woman is wrestled to the ground by Secret Service agents, but as Jackie watches through the window, tears come to her eyes. She wants to know why she and her family cannot be left alone.
Think about it. Here's a scene that's designed to make you feel sorry for this woman and her family being forced to live in an incessant spotlight. But it occurs in a movie that shines that spotlight all the brighter.
The question that occurs again and again during this film is, "Why?" Why does Jacqueline Kennedy Bouvier Onassis get as much miniseries time as George Washington? Indeed, why is this woman who has uttered probably a dozen words in public over the last decade the subject of this season's longest and most lavish production? Why are people so taken with her?
"A Woman Named Jackie," which is running in three two-hour installments, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights at 9 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR), certainly doesn't provide the answer.
It tells its story in an earnest, uninspired fashion, occasionally picking up pseudo-Freudian thematic bits -- the demanding mother, the absent, philandering father, the poor-little-rich-girl saga -- but never developing a distinctive approach that would provide more than the shallowest of insights.
There are scenes of her as a callous, social-climbing, shopaholic gold digger, and scenes of her as a caring, concerned mother and supportive wife. There's no key as to who and what is the real Jackie, no revelatory moment that explains it all. "A Woman Named Jackie," based on the book by C. David Heymann, merely provides a catalog of incidents, most of which are probably familiar to its core audience of Kennedyphiles.
Virtual unknown Roma Downey handles the title role with a voice that sounds like a breathy Audrey Hepburn and studied mannerisms reminiscent of Grace Kelly. Considering that the material she is given reveals few clues about her character's deeper motivations, this Irish actress is fine but not outstanding in a role that requires her to follow many footsteps -- the stumbles of Jacklyn Smith, the near-perfection of Blair Brown.
Indeed, all these roles have been done so many times that we're close to having enough material for the Kennedy cable channel -- all Kennedys, all the time. The surprise of this cast is Stephen Collins as Jack Kennedy. Completely avoiding an impersonation, he captures the boyish energy that dazzled a nation, and an untold number of women.
"A Woman Named Jackie" does go into our beloved president's roving eye, advancing the theory that the breakup of Marilyn Monroe's affairs with Jack and Bobby Kennedy led her to suicide.
One essential problem with "A Woman Named Jackie" is that it never can find an appropriate balance between private and public events. When the public and private collided in that horrible moment in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the miniseries rises to the occasion with its most powerful scenes, but even then it goes on too long, finally descending into melodrama.
After that, "A Woman Named Jackie" moves on to the Onassis years, with Joss Ackland playing the shipping magnate as an aging, earthy Zorba dancing his way through his billions.
At the end of the six hours, you are still left wondering why it is that we are so fascinated with Jackie Kennedy, and you realize that maybe it's because we actually know so little about her.
The image is enough. We don't need the reality. So you finally ask, along with Jackie, why don't they just leave this woman and her family alone? Unfortunately, there were no Secret Service agents to wrestle NBC and these producers to the ground.