You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘JFK,’ ‘Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy’

PBS, TLC docs find human side of Kennedy, amid numbing onslaught of 50th anniversary fare


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

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

More TV

  • Emmys statue

    TV Academy to Eliminate Emmy DVD Screeners in 2020

    The Television Academy will eliminate distribution of DVD screeners for eligible shows beginning with the 2020 Emmy cycle. Designed to eliminate both monetary and physical waste, the move will have a substantive impact on the strategy of Emmy marketers. It also makes the academy the first major entertainment-industry organization to bar physical screeners. “This is [...]

  • Super Bowl LII - Tom Brady,

    Verizon Plans Multiple Ad Plays Leading to Super Bowl Commercial

    If Verizon gets its way, its Super Bowl advertising plans will include a 60-second commercial during the game – and a half-hour documentary that gives viewers even more of what will be discussed in the ad. The telecommunications giant is often scrutinized for the communications resources it provides its customers, but its Super Bowl campaign [...]

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. “The images and stories recognized by the [...]

  • Naomi Watts

    Naomi Watts to Star in Jason Blum-Produced Quibi Series 'Wolves and Villagers' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Naomi Watts has been cast in the lead role in the upcoming Quibi series “Wolves and Villagers,” Variety has learned exclusively. The exact plot of the short-form series is being kept under wraps, but Quibi co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg has previously described the show as “Fatal Attraction 2.0.” Jason Blum is executive producing the series, with [...]

  • HBO's 'Breslin And Hamill' Documentary Drops

    HBO's 'Breslin And Hamill' Documentary Drops Trailer

    “Revolutionary,” “superstars,” “the voice of true New Yorkers” — that’s how Spike Lee and other influential figures describe journalists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill in the trailer released for HBO’s “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” documentary. The film, which premieres Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, follows the two newspaper columnists whose dedication and wit [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content