As elegant and cultured as Jackie herself, “What Jackie Knew” is a visually deft and intellectually stimulating account of Jacqueline Kennedy’s lucid approach to her marriage and her years as America’s First Lady. Melancholy but riveting, Patrick Jeudy’s outstanding symbiosis of thesis and visuals is a major find for programmers everywhere.
Seamless assemblage of formal and informal footage of JFK, Jackie and their children at home and abroad posits that, of all the Kennedy clan, Jackie was the only one who was never fooled into believing the Camelot spin. In addition to being a compelling condensation of historical fact, docu is a fascinating meditation on the power of filmed images: If the Kennedys on film look like an ideal family, how could the truth be otherwise?
There’s no shortage of written and filmed material on the Kennedy years, but Jeudy’s docu sports dense, well-written narration that makes a case for Jackie as the key ingredient in an enterprise which, while never overtly cynical, was always about maintaining appearances.
From the moment Jackie agreed to marry the dashing young senator from Massachusetts who was 12 years her senior, she knew he would continue to womanize and certainly would bring her emotional pain to match his own constant physical discomfort from serious health problems.
The tug-of-war between public and private life is illustrated with footage so sharply assembled it seems as if the documaker reached back into history to direct the protagonists and get the shots he needed 40 years after the fact.
Docu highlights Jackie’s sense of style — not as the pace-setting example it proved to be for American women but as a feat of artistry in combining “elegance with camouflage.” She wore gloves because she thought her hands were too big, and also to conceal tobacco-stained fingers.
Film points out one juicy bit of fallout from the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK urged Jackie to take the kids and go to the presidential shelter, which she refused to do. Only later did she learn JFK had reserved a spot in their survival abode for his favorite, long-standing mistress.
Jackie’s resolve transformed a life of potentially idle privilege into a mission to interject taste and high culture into the pragmatism of political life. At classical music performances by leading practitioners of the day, she had to cue her husband when to applaud. And at her behest, films by Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais were projected at the White House. (Docu omits to mention that both helmers had just begun their feature careers when JFK was elected.)
By the time Jackie convinced France to loan the Mona Lisa to the U.S., French minister of culture Andre Malraux parted with the canvas as a tribute to America’s First Lady.
The death of patriarch Joe Kennedy marked the passing of the only Kennedy who completely understood Jackie. Joe paid for Jackie’s designer dresses in case JFK balked at the amount they cost.
Technical quality of archive material is excellent. Film is also available in an English version, narrated by Hester Wilcox.