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Film Review: ‘Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy’

Jackie Kennedy's condolence cards get an A-list reading in documaker Bill Couturie's exercise in baby-boomer nostalgia.

With:

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.

Veteran docu producer-director Bill Couturie extends his line of films built around ordinary citizens’ historically significant correspondence — two prior projects focused on soldiers’ letters from Vietnam and Iraq — with “Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy.” Mixing a starry recitation of missives sent to the grieving first lady with a fond recap of Kennedy’s brief Oval Office tenure, this respectable exercise in bittersweet nostalgia for baby boomers has been playing brief theatrical dates around the country since Sept. 17. In November, it makes its broadcast debut on Discovery TLC, timed to coincide with the assassination’s 50th anniversary.

Starting with the Kennedys’ excited Dallas airport greeting and their ill-fated motorcade downtown — but stopping short of the Zapruder footage — Couturie puts front and center the tragedy that shook the nation like few (if any) others, arguably setting a tone of national disillusionment we haven’t recovered from yet. At least a couple of the letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy that are heard in excerpt here were started so quickly that the president’s death hadn’t even been confirmed yet. The shooting occurred on a Friday; by Monday, 45,000 such anxious condolences had reached the White House. After two months, their number approached 1 million.

Often sharing their own stories, numerous letter writers took this abrupt demise as personally as a family loss, reflecting the atmosphere of high idealism the Kennedys roused for much of the nation. The writers ranged from schoolchildren to grandmothers, many particularly moved by the president’s support for the civil rights movement. (However, we also hear Martin Luther King Jr. opining that Kennedy “could do more” for that cause.) Those who wrote the missives are identified and often depicted in old photos onscreen. The readers (identified only at the end) include Oscar winners and other current thesping luminaries, few of them yet born in 1963.

But the bulk of the film is given over to a highlight reel of major events from Kennedy’s presidency, from the the inauguration of the Peace Corps to various NASA milestones, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, racial strife in the South, international diplomatic travel, military escalation in Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. While it was certainly a turbulent period in terms of both Cold War conflict and domestic unrest, the docu only briefly alludes to the intense criticism Kennedy attracted in many quarters. Instead, it primarily communicates his (and Jackie’s) golden Camelot aura; surely no first family before or since had seemed so young, glamorous, modern and fun. Particularly endearing are homemovie clips showing the family (and the extended Kennedy clan) at play.

Hardly an in-depth historical analysis, or even a very good introduction for those not already familiar with the era, “Letters to Jackie” aims simply for warm reminiscence. The pro package, entirely composed of archival materials, is likewise scored solely with preexisting tracks, making particular use of Mark Isham’s patriotic instrumental “On the Threshold of Liberty.”

Film Review: 'Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Oct. 2, 2013. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) An Emerging Pictures release of a TLC/Christy Scott Cashman presentation of an Amblin Television production in association with the Couturie Co. Produced by Anne Sandkuhler, Bill Couturie. Executive producers, Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey, Timothy Kuryak, Howard Lee, Amy Winter.

Crew:

Directed, written by Bill Couturie, based on the book by Ellen Fitzpatrick. Camera (color/B&W, HD); editor, Mark H. Brewer; sound, Patrick Fitzgerald; casting, Leslee Feldman.

With:

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.

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