Haunted by enemies both real and imagined, Robert Kennedy was a patrician without a court in 1964. Communist dictators, bosses of crime syndicates, power hungry bureaucrats, even the newly elected President, were all part, or so it seemed, of some nefarious, barely discernible plot to wrestle power and influence away from him and his family, the closest thing to royalty Americans have ever known.
D.A. Pennebaker filmed RFK once prior to Jingle Bells, at the height of his power as United States Attorney General, during a tense two days in June 1963. The resulting film, Crisis, an early piece of political vérité, captured the moment John F. Kennedy federalized National Guard troops and deployed them to the University of Alabama to force its desegregation. On screen, the Kennedys were a double-act of progressive idealism and cold political calculation. Months later, bitter circumstance forced Robert into self-exile, re-emerging as a reluctant agent of history to fulfill the promise of his brother’s shattered legacy.
At sea in the luminous bustle of Christmas in New York City, Jingle Bells catches Kennedy racing at vertiginous speed to retake the political capital he lost after the collapse of Camelot. Now the Senator-elect of New York, he affects an affable, distant, countenance. Who were his enemies? Who were his allies? Was he unwittingly complicit in the absurd tragedy that wracked his family and, by extension, the nation? These would all prove unanswerable, fruitless, questions, yet ones his political future held some large purchase in.
Surrounded by his children, his wife Ethel, Sammy Davis, Jr. (a jester without a court), as he visits schoolchildren around the city, RFK is every bit the good patriarch and dutiful public servant. But it’s the films’ fleeting, in-between, moments where Pennebaker most precisely hits the mark, offering reflection on the possibilities that Robert Kennedy’s all too brief life foreclosed. Set against the pageantry of a long ago Christmas, the film speaks to tragic contingencies of history lying far beyond the ken of politics that continue to circumscribe the tortured destiny of our country.