PBS, TLC docs find human side of Kennedy, amid numbing onslaught of 50th anniversary fare
There’s a noise-canceling quality of the programming tidal wave tied to the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which doesn’t make the milestone any less historically significant, or selected programs any less worthwhile. So somewhat arbitrarily, here’s an endorsement of two: “JFK,” a comprehensive four-hour “American Experience” documentary; and the more purely emotional “Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy,” an artful and poetic vision of Camelot through the grief of ordinary citizens, lovingly assembled by documentarian Bill Couturie. Each has merit, taking the measure of the man and what he did, as opposed to dwelling on the semi-centennial of how he died.
Featuring a who’s who of historians and biographers (among them Robert Caro and Robert Dallek) as well as lone surviving sibling Jean Kennedy Smith, “JFK” begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis, establishing the young president as a man with “an unshakable sense of his own skills.”
Part one then delves into his early life with his father in Europe, heroism during World War II and early forays into politics, culminating with his election as president in 1960, after his bruising battle with Lyndon Johnson to secure the nomination and precedent-setting televised debates with Richard Nixon (who is described at the time, Dallek says, as looking like a “sinister chipmunk”).
Produced and directed by Susan Bellows, “JFK” draws upon a treasure trove of biographical material, picking up with Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address; segueing into the Bay of Pigs mess in Cuba; and detailing the administration’s reluctant response — motivated by political concerns — to the civil-rights movement in the South.
Like the best “American Experience” fare, it’s all conveyed in a stately, fascinating and thoroughly comprehensive manner. That includes his nagging health problems and notorious, reckless womanizing, a tendency about which Jackie was warned, it’s noted, prior to their wedding.
If “JFK” offers a warts-and-all look, “Letters to Jackie” dispenses with such concerns, powerfully zeroing in on the profound effect the assassination had on the country.
In that respect, the TLC doc is much more showy, including the array of celebrity voices enlisted to read selected entries of the 800,000 letters received in the wake of Kennedy’s death, either written long-hand, or banged out on old manual typewriters.
Yet while that format sounds inherently static and potentially confining in TV terms, as visually staged and lushly scored, the device brings to mind the letters in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” Moreover, Couturie eschews narration, fleshing out the two hours with footage from Kennedy’s televised press conferences (where he playfully jousted with reporters), homemovies and other imagery designed to illustrate why people felt such a warm, deeply rooted bond to the young president.
The letters draw from a variety of Americans, with different races and backgrounds. One missive cites the unfairness of such a towering life being snuffed out by “a madman with a mail-order rifle, and another “the shattering example of a great man dead by an idiot bullet.” (As an aside, comedy writer-producer Janis Hirsch — then a mere teenager — is among the featured correspondents.)
As for his widow Jackie, she is shown in an interview speaking of “the comfort your letters have brought to us all.”
No more so, it turns out, than the richness with which Couturie’s delicate handling of them brings history to life.
Admittedly, with so many JFK documentaries scheduled this month, it’s difficult to know even where to begin. There’s also a trivializing effect of devoting so many specials to commemorate a day where any then-living Americans can tell you precisely where they were.
Still, viewed in concert, “JFK” and “Letters to Jackie” offer a fairly cohesive picture — a look at the man himself, and, in their own elegant words, what his loss meant to so many.
TV Review: 'JFK,' 'Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy'
(Documentary; PBS, Mon.-Tue. Nov. 11-12, 9 p.m.) (Documentary; TLC, Sun. Nov. 17, 9 p.m.)
Produced by WGBH Boston. Produced by the Couturie Co. in association with Amblin Television.
Executive producer, Mark Samels; producer-director, Susan Bellows; writer, Mark Zwonitzer; camera, Buddy Squires, Allen Moore, Michael Chin; editors, Jon Neuburger, Glenn Fukushima; music, Joel Goodman. 4 HOURS Executive producers, Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey; producers, Anne Sandkuhler, Bill Couturie; writer-director, Couturie; editor, Mark H. Brewer. 120 MIN.
Narrator: Oliver Platt Letter readers: Berenice Bejo, Demian Bichir, Jessica Chastain, Chris Cooper, Viola Davis, Zooey Deschanel, Kirsten Dunst, Anne Hathaway, Allison Janney, John Krasinski, Melissa Leo, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mark Ruffalo, Octavia Spencer, Hailee Steinfeld, Channing Tatum, Betty White, Michelle Williams