Few former presidents remain as beloved in the eye of the world as the late John F. Kennedy. His dapper, youthful presence in the midst of the rapid social change of the 60s was a breath of fresh air and a hopeful promise for Americans young and old. But unlike his political peers, J.F.K.’s image has benefited from the idyllic stature of talent taken too soon. Like Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, he was a presidential rock star whose early death shocked the world into permanent remembrance of every speech and every appearance. A half century later, we as a nation continue to mourn his murder by celebrating him and his glamorous, All-American family, this time taking form in the hundreds of thousands of letters sent to his wife, Jacqueline, in the wake of his passing. Using the same celebrity studded formula he developed for his look back at the Vietnam War in Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam and Liz Garbus perfected in Love, Marilyn, Director Bill Couturié and his team of researchers have assembled a handful of the most wholehearted and eloquently written dispatches to recap the beloved president’s lasting impact in Letters To Jackie.
Of the million and a half letters that arrived at the White House after the assassination of J.F.K., the select few that were chosen help to paint a broad celebratory portrait of the president. Some recount in picture perfect detail the events of November 22, 1963, one placing us on the sidewalks of Dallas, Texas just moments before Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle from the window of the Texas School Book Depository just a few stories above. Another, typed out with pride by an African American woman whose admiration of John’s continued support of racial equality extends to a personal invitation to coffee at her home in Detroit. One was sent by a humble postman from El Paso comparing his identity with that of the late president – both the same age, wives the same age, weddings in the same year, kids the same age – and asking Jackie to separate her vision of Texans from that of her husband’s murderer. Each and every letter, in addition to their personal take on the events, offers Jackie and her family their sincerest sympathies, often to teary-eyed effect.
Accenting the succinctly written letters, Couturié has assembled a cast that matches the aplomb of his previous efforts through somberly reenacted dispatches by the talents of Melissa Leo, Anne Hathaway, Mark Ruffalo, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Chris Cooper, Kirsten Dunst, and on and on. It’s quite possibly the best cast of any film this year, yet none of them ever actually appear on screen. Their voices instead embody the Americans grieving in their own written ways with striking emotional resonance.
Each of these letters is thematically paired with one of J.F.K.’s political achievements to tie personal empathy to a broader portrait of patriotism and the 60s. Though lacking the personal insight that Rory Kennedy brought to the intimate portrait of her mother in last year’s Ethel, Couturié splices famed presidential speeches on civil rights and space exploration against Kennedy home videos that reinforce the humanism he’s known and loved for. But this highlight reel of Kennedy’s presidency would feel cheaper than it should if it wasn’t for the director also taking the time to track down the authors of each letter, allowing them to appear in photographs and Super 8, subliminally leveling the field between average citizen and head of state.
As a record of Kennedy’s brief presidency, Bill Couturié’s latest is little more than rehashed video bites reworked with a period appropriate soundtrack, but the film rises just above paltry patriotism and nostalgic flag-waving by embracing the fresh perspective of the American public in a moment of mass grief. Their articulate and personal sympathies are edited with an eye for parochial poignancy, pushing the compassion of a handful of housewives and civil servants to encompass the consciousness of an entire nation. Devoid of the criticism that must have lived somewhere in this mass of dispatches, Letters To Jackie celebrates the political legacy of J.F.K. with unabashed allegiance to the youthful president and his pretty faced family, but also with the grace and endearing sentimentality of the common men and women of the 60s and for that it’s a worthwhile watch.
Reviewed on June 20th at AFI Docs Film Festival – Galas Program. 88 min