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Letters to Jackie wraps its hands around our Camelot-era heartstrings and for 90 minutes, just tugs, tugs, tugs. An impressionistic revisitation of John F. Kennedy’s presidency and the somber days that followed his 1963 assassination, Bill Couturié‘s film recruits a number of prominent actors—-Viola Davis, Michelle Williams, Jessica Chastain, Channing Tatum, and others—-to read, in their most heartfelt voices, letters written to Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her husband’s murder. (The movie is based on Ellen Fitzpatrick’s Letters to Jackie, the book that initially compiled all those correspondences of condolence.)
The letters, as one might expect, come from a wide swath of Americans: a young Trenton, N.J., polio sufferer who advises Mrs. Kennedy to listen to “You Gotta Have Heart” from Damn Yankees when she feels sad; a Detroit woman who says that President Kennedy made her feel “proud of being colored”; the D.C. wife of an officer who died months earlier when the USS Thresher sank off the coast of Cape Cod. “Mrs. Kennedy, when you are very much alone with only your thoughts, please, please think of us, the wives the Thresher left behind,” Mrs. John J. Wiley tells the First Lady via the rich warmth of Allison Janney’s voice. “Our hands reach out for yours.”
It’s undeniably moving. But Letters to Jackie, which premieres at AFI Docs and is scheduled to air on TLC this fall, might have been even more moving if it were less obvious about how much it wants to move us. The swelling score coupled with archival news footage, pictures of the humble, compassionate letter writers and home movies of the Kennedys—-tanned, beaming, beautiful—-enable this documentary to tiptoe a little too close to overglorifying JFK. As a letter read in the film by Mark Ruffalo says, “To understand the Kennedy experience … Americans are going to have to go to a land of ideas and dwell there for a while.” That’s exactly what Letters to Jackie does: It dwells in ideas and ideals, sometimes beautifully and sometimes excessively.
When the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination is commemorated this November, many will pause and remember how the hearts of every U.S. citizen snapped in two at exactly the same moment. As all these letters written in the throes of grief attest, those citizens mourned. Eventually, they moved on. But this country never fully recovered. And sometimes, even if the reminder comes in the form of a slightly heavy-handed documentary, we still need to be reminded of that.
The film opens the AFI Docs festival on June 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Newseum. Buy tickets on AFIDocs.com.