Documentary shields Jackie

Television: `Jackie: Behind the Myth' on PBS tonight turns out to be more fawning than revealing.

November 29, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Jackie: Behind the Myth" is one of the more misleading titles of the television season. Not only does the two-hour documentary on Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis not take us behind the myth, it so celebrates Jackie that you are certain the final scene is going to be played out on Mount Olympus.

And yet, as maddening as it is in the unpleasant facts it ignores, the documentary is ultimately quite moving. In fact, it left me feeling more kindly disposed and impressed with her than I would have believed possible after all the Jackie hagiography I have endured these past 40 years or so.

But let's start with some of the more outrageous punches it pulls, given the title.

How did Jackie deal with Jack's alleged (I'm being kind) philandering?

What philandering?

The only acknowledgment that her marriage to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy might not have been the perfect communion of two souls meant for each other comes when narrator Vinessa Shaw tells us that when it came to such rumors, "Whatever she knew or thought, she kept to herself."

End of story. Next.

What about how she worked with journalist Theodore White to invent the "Camelot" myth for her late husband's administration -- a myth whose fog historians are still trying to cut their way through in an effort to understand how we go from post-World-War-II America in the 1950s to urban riots in 1968?

What myth?

The documentary stays miles away from acknowledging that there might have been anything false about depicting Washington as Camelot-on-the-Potomac from 1960 to '63, let alone that Jackie could have possibly had a hand in creating such fairy tales.

And wait until you hear Shaw tell you that, from Jackie's White House days on, "What she was trying to create was nothing less than a cultural renaissance" for America.

There was not one historian or close family member on-camera during the entire film. What we get instead are fawning cousins and others mainly from the world of publishing and art who adore her.

"She was always winning the blue ribbon," says John Shaw, a cousin who is on screen more than anyone else in the film except Jackie. "Jackie had the sensitivity of an artist, and she had the courage of a great athlete."

And on and on it goes like that.

So, what's to recommend in such a film?

First, it does a better job of personalizing her grief after JFK's assassination than any other film I have seen. As the screen fills with a still photograph of her face looking into the camera, a quote from her is given a dramatic reading: "I'm a living wound. My life is over. I have nothing more to give and some days I can't get out of bed. I cry all day and night until I am exhausted."

Director Suzanne Bauman is highly effective in combining image, narration and music to make you feel the pain. Though, again, the film is maddening in its lack of documentation and standard historical citations.

We are not, for example, told where the "living wound" statement comes from. Is it something Jackie said, something that she wrote, or is it something someone claims she said to them? There's a difference. Emotion is not truth, it only feels that way when you are watching TV.

The film is also successful in taking you back inside the 1960s and the incredible story of the presidency and assassination of Jack Kennedy and the candidacy and assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Maybe because it offers Jackie's fixed viewpoint from which to assess the unbelievable events of those years, the middle stretch of the film is hypnotic as it glides from Sinatra campaigning for Jack to the Cuban missile crisis, civil rights marches, Vietnam, Dallas, Lyndon Johnson, JFK's funeral cortege and RFK's funeral train.

"Jackie: Behind the Myth" is far more elegy than history. Bauman seems to be trying to create more of a poem than a biographical film. Enjoy its lyricism, but understand its limitations in terms of history and truth. And don't be fooled by the title.

Documentary

What: "Jackie: Behind the Myth"

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

In brief: Elegy, not history.

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