Brilliantly conceived and beautifully crafted, "Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy" may not only be one of the year's best documentaries but one of the year's finest overall films.
The movie is based on readings of actual condolence letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy after John F. Kennedy's assassination, read in voice-overs by celebrities. If that may sound a bit dreary or cliched, the result is anything but. Writer-director Bill Couturié (who made the touching, Emmy Award-winning 1987 HBO doc "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam") has created a rich, tender, enormously stirring portrait of one of America's most beloved presidents.
Couturié has gathered a wish-list of notable actors (Channing Tatum, Anne Hathaway, Viola Davis, Allison Janney, Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Betty White and many more), to read aloud some of the estimated 800,000 letters mailed to the grieving first lady. The disparate mourners' candid, profound words, gorgeously performed by these skilled artists, are combined with period photos of the letter writers and lyrical shots of the missives themselves (oh, to see close-ups of cursive handwriting and manual typewriter font!).
Woven through these moving communiqués is a treasure trove of familiar and rarer news and archival footage that chronologically tracks JFK's brief but illustrious time in the Oval Office, including many key events that also involved the glamorous Jackie (their 1961 trip to Paris is a standout). These images, augmented by wonderful Kennedy family home-movie clips, prove a poignant reminder of the charismatic 35th president's cherished words, deeds and ideals and, of course, the tragedy of his untimely death.
Couturié doesn't shy away from several of Kennedy's missteps — including the Bay of Pigs debacle and his support of the American build-up in Vietnam. But the film decidedly remains, no pun intended, a love letter.
In addition to offering a powerful, evocative look at early-1960s America — its hopes, dreams and often harsh realities — the film vividly recounts some of the same kind of partisan rancor that's sadly still alive today (Alabama Gov. George Wallace's vitriolic fight against JFK's civil rights legislation, revisited here, has eerie similarities to the current Washington battles over the Affordable Care Act).
The movie's lingering question: What would America — and the world — have become if JFK (and, by association, the era's other fallen icons) had lived? We'll never know, but it's grand that "Letters to Jackie" exists as such a stunning tribute and superb time capsule.
'Letters to Jackie'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: At Landmark's Regent Theatre, WestwoodCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun