In the cinema of JFK’s assassination, the new TV documentary “Letters to Jackie” promises pure escapism.
Featuring Hollywood actors reading from the letters sent to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy after the death of her husband, the movie offers an escape from the interminable loop of an unsolved true crime story. As the trailer (produced by Steven Speilberg) indicates, “Letters to Jackie” frames November 22, 1963, as a family tragedy — a personal, not political, event.
The film, which premieres in Washington this week, is an expression of the impulse to touch the wound left by assassination — to feel pain and to be reassured that one can still feel it. As such, “Letters to Jackie” is an exercise in human interest and unobjectionable. But I wonder if the film isn’t also an expression of the impulse to avoid the political meaning of JFK’s assassination. Just as the American people sought to reassure the First Lady in 1963, the film seems to be designed to reassure the audience in 2013: everything’s going to be OK.
Of course, the desire for reassurance a half century after the fact can only be understood as compensation for enduring feelings for fear, sorrow and suspicion that the film (one can safely predict) will studiously avoid.
Will the film air Jackie Kennedy’s private belief that her husband was murdered by his political enemies? That is a painful thought, and on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death no small number of Americans will, perhaps understandably, want to avoid it. “Letters to Jackie” is a film for them.
But there is no escaping the facts about what First Lady thought about the causes of her husband’s death. From my 2010 piece for TheAtlantic.com:
“The president’s brother Robert and widow Jacqueline also believed that [JFK] had been killed by political enemies, according to historians Aleksandr Fursenko and Tim Naftali. In their 1999 book on the Cuban missile crisis, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, they reported that William Walton — a friend of the First Lady — went to Moscow on a previously scheduled trip a week after JFK’s murder. Walton carried a message from RFK and Jackie for their friend, Georgi Bolshakov, a Russian diplomat who had served as a back-channel link between the White House and the Kremlin during the October 1962 crisis: RFK and Jackie wanted the Soviet leadership to know that “despite Oswald’s connections to the communist world, the Kennedys believed that the president was felled by domestic opponents.”
(“Letters to Jackie” will air on TLC sometime this fall.)
“The JFK film industry is booming” (JFK Facts, May 28, 2013)
“What did the Washington political elite think of JFK’s death?” (JFK Facts, June 14, 2013)