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.
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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