Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived

"Weak"

Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived Review


In this current bizarro world of crashing stock markets, mammoth weather catastrophes, genocides, and preemptive wars, it is not only comforting, but therapeutic, to close your eyes, stick your head in an ice bucket and imagine historical what-ifs. This kind of entertaining parlor game has been the grist of popular literature for years, from MacKinlay Kanter's If the South Had Won the War to Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. But now it has entered the skewed realm of strident documentary film essay in Koji Masutani's debut feature Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived.

In the manner of The Fog of War and An Inconvenient Truth, Masutani supplements a lecture by Brown University professor James G. Blight with a barrel full of archival clips from the years of the Kennedy presidency, most of them culled from press briefings by Kennedy as he fields pointed questions about his administration's performance.

Blight, standing out starkly against a white screen, states his case explicitly: "Can a president make a decisive difference in matters of war and peace... or, are the forces that drive a nation into war a lot more impersonal, out of control of any single human being, even a president?" Utilizing what Harvard historian Niall Ferguson terms "virtual history" of what-ifs and analyzing alternate outcomes to historical fact, Blight's "history of things that did not really happen" comes to a rather unsurprising conclusion based on this film's presentation -- it is not impersonal forces that will determine a nation's future course, but it is solely dependent on the person in charge, whether it be John F. Kennedy, Millard Fillmore, or George W. Bush.

Blight wedges in historical events from the Kennedy years to demonstrate that, if Kennedy had lived, there would have been no Vietnam War, the post-1963 United States would have been much different, and the current resident of the White House would still be drinking.

Virtual JFK is divided into "six crises" from the Kennedy years -- the Bay of Pigs, the crisis in Laos, the Berlin Wall, Kennedy's refusal to bow to pressure from the military to send troops into Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his 1963 proposal to withdraw from Vietnam -- and, in all cases, Blight verifies his talking point that even though Kennedy was "pressured more often by more people than any other president," Kennedy sought negotiation and dialogue rather than the dogs of war to achieve peace from tinderbox situations. Blight also explains how, after the Kennedy assassination, the idea of dialogue went down the toilet with Lyndon Johnson's obsession with victory in Vietnam to the tune of sending 500,000 American troops into that escalated war. And the country hasn't been the same since.

The problem with all of this is that the film is all Blight, with nary a differing opinion to be heard, so most of the time the film plays out like a hagiographic screed. Based on the clips of Kennedy presented, along with some fascinating audio recordings of Kennedy in action during the Cuban Missile Crisis, there is no denying the late president's passionate commitment and political skill. But it is also hard to believe that the maligned Great Man Theory of History has suddenly returned like Godzilla under the cover of night to roost upon this historical pastiche.

In fact, the most insightful sections of Virtual JFK have nothing to do with the film's central proposition. It is in the clips of the Kennedy press conferences. Here is seen a literate, articulate president holding his own, fielding hardball questions from the press corps with reporters like Sander Vanocur and Bob Trout hammering Kennedy with statements like "never has a man talked so big and acted so little" or criticizing the "clamming up of information" or questioning whether the Kennedy administration is "using the news to perpetuate themselves in office." In response, Kennedy gives honest and reasoned responses. A truly democratic dialogue and, in today's contemporary politics? A bizarro world indeed.

A Pax Americana?



Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived

Facts and Figures

Run time: 80 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 17th September 2008

Distributed by: Global Media Project

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Fresh: 18 Rotten: 5

IMDB: 6.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Koji Masutani

Producer: Peter O. Almond, James G. Blight, Janet M. Lang, Koji Masutani, David A. Welch

Starring: John F. Kennedy as (Himself)

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