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AFI Docs Review: “Letters to Jackie”

A moving and skillful homage to one of America’s most memorable leaders.

Still of Letters to Jackie via AFI Docs.

When my father died, it was the first time I’d ever gotten a condolence note. Many times, I’d wondered if I really needed to write to a particular friend or acquaintance after a loved one’s death—maybe I didn’t know the bereaved well or simply couldn’t think of what to say. Too often I did nothing. Having now been on the receiving end, I’ve learned this: When in doubt, send a card (or an e-mail). It’s one of the cheapest and most meaningful gifts a person can give.

Letters to Jackie, the opening-night film of AFI Docs, demonstrates this phenomenon and its corollary during a time of shared grief: the ability of a condolence to offer healing to the writer.

The documentary, directed by Bill Couturié, uses letters written to Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s death—the White House received 45,000 alone by the Monday after his Friday assassination—as a vehicle to look back at JFK’s presidency. With the help of voiceovers (by Jessica Chastain, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Betty White, and others), rare film footage and home movies, and creative manipulation of handwriting and typescript, the film draws us into the broken hearts of individuals—not a nation but individuals—offering solace to a woman they felt they knew.

A 13-year-old girl with polio suggests Mrs. Kennedy do what has helped her in trying times—sing “You Gotta Have Heart” from Damn Yankees. An African-American, writing during the most dehumanizing days of the civil-rights movement, says: “We loved your husband because he thought negroes was Gods love and made us like he did white people and did not make us as dogs.” A man quotes from one of JFK’s speeches, in which Kennedy said, “The American presidency demands that the President … care passionately about the people he leads, that he be willing to serve them at the risk of incurring their momentary displeasure.” The writer eloquently concludes: “It was a Jeffersonian remark. And it was what the President was doing when he incurred the momentary displeasure of a madman with a mail-order rifle.” Another refers to the “idiot bullet” that killed Kennedy—a phrase any novelist would be proud of.

Letters to Jackie is an extremely moving and skillful homage to one of our most memorable leaders. (A cynic might call it hagiography—okay, but hagiography of the highest order.) Even more, it’s a celebration of the power of putting hand to paper and generously sharing the contents of one’s heart.

As it happens, among my late father’s possessions was a form letter on Crane stationery from Jacqueline Kennedy thanking him for his letter of condolence on the occasion of her husband’s passing.

“Letters to Jackie” will air on TLC in November and, according to director Bill Couturié, who spoke at the AFI Docs screening, will have a theatrical release before then.

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