I had not originally planned to watch Jackie. But Bishop Barron said it was worthwhile, for reasons I will get into in a moment.
Unless you have been going out of your way to avoid American History your entire life, you will be familiar with what happened on November 22, 1963. Then sitting U.S. President, John F Kennedy, was shot in the head in Dallas while riding in the back of a car waving to a throng of citizens. His wife Jacqueline was sitting next to him when it happened. Spattered with his blood and brains she rode to the hospital cradling his dead body in her lap. This movie is an unrelenting agony of expositional grief endured by a young wife with two small children who has to endure these horrors under the televisual eye of several billion people around the world. It would have been excruciatingly unwatchable….except this is not really what the movie was about.
The devastating personal and national tragedy we watch unfold, told mostly in a yo-yo of flashbacks which jump all over the time line of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life with John, is merely a backdrop to the real and starkly simple story of a priest walking and talking with a widow, which is part confession and part grief counseling.
John Hurt, in one of his last performances, gives an appropriately clear and brilliant final act to his amazing career, as the unnamed and unforgettable priest. Under the circumstances, given the subject matter, it may be inappropriate to say that Hurt’s portrayal of the priest “steals the show”. But…well, he does. What happened to Jackie and her family and the nation was horrible and seared like a scar into our national consciousness, impacting the way we view and carry out security as surely as did the 9/11 attacks. But watching it unfold in all its gory details – and yes, we do see JFK get the back of his head blown off, up close near the end of the movie – would be pointless were it not for the perspective-rich counsel of the aged Father.
Jackie asks the priest questions which might occur to any of us were we in her shoes (and I paraphrase): Is God cruel? Why did he make my children fatherless? Why did he take two of my children in infancy? And the Father unflinchingly answers her with unwavering faith in our God: that we were never created to fully understand Him but that He loves us and we must trust Him, even and especially in our pain and suffering. He advises the Catholic Jackie with the story of the blind man who Jesus assures his disciples was not allowed to be blind because of any sin he or his parents committed, but to be a vehicle to show God’s glory. He then explains to Jackie that, suffer as she may, she was chosen by God for His purposes.
Hurt is only on screen for roughly 7 minutes and 50 seconds total, over 5 scenes (I know because I tallied them up). He doesn’t even make his first appearance until 50 minutes into this 100 minute movie. Granted the context of the enormity of her suffering helps give context to his conversation with her. But his presence is the purpose for the entire movie. The rest is background that could have been replaced with any number of individual catastrophes: the counseling of a lone survivor of a family lost in a hurricane, speaking to the widower of a suicide, on the sudden loss of a child, to a terminally ill patient. But choosing this very public event gives every person on Earth an avenue with which to connect to this ultimately very private tale of grief and loss. And the vehicle for the story affords the opportunity for every person on Earth to be the beneficiary of this wise and gentle priest’s open, matter of fact and even blunt words of faith gifted to our protagonist, Jackie – who really is only our representative to the spectacle of the pain required of the human condition.
You know the terrible tale of the assassination of John F Kennedy. Jackie’s ordeal of pain is easy, albeit unpleasant, to imagine. But the scenes with John Hurt are worth the price of admission. Thankfully, with the technology today it would be simple to just get the DVD or stream it through Amazon and scan for the 5 scenes with John Hurt. The treasure is buried in those moments, like the Easter eggs on Easter morning, which iconically represent the emerging of Jesus from the tomb on the Day of His Resurrection. The wise counsel of this unnamed, and therefore representative, priest is purpose enough to find and seek out those moments in the film as the resurrection of Jackie’s broken, tormented and doubtful soul.
Thank you John Hurt for this last gift of priceless and faith-filled talent – and may God bless you and give you rest.