Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski prefers "what if?" histories with more gravitas, like "what if Firefly hadn't been cancelled?"
"Does it matter who is president on issues of war and peace?…Or are the forces that drive human beings into conflict far more impersonal, out of the control of any single human being, even a president?"
Working in the uncertain but fascinating realm of "virtual history," Virtual JFK examines a high stakes "what if?" question, speculating on how the Vietnam War might (not) have unfolded if Kennedy's presidency had not been cut short by his assassination in 1963.
Facts of the Case
To explore this historical issue, first-time director Koji Masutani allows historian James G. Blight to guide us through a wealth of archival footage. Blight's argument is that because Kennedy was six times confronted with the possibility of war, and six times backed away from that option, it is likely that he would have done everything he could to prevent the war in Vietnam, too. To make that argument, he lays out the events of each of these six crises and Kennedy's responses, and follows up with a brief look at Lyndon Johnson's handling of Vietnam when he took over the presidency.
Though the advertising for this well-made documentary emphasizes its "virtual history" approach and the controversy among historians about the usefulness of such pursuits, Virtual JFK is less about gimmicky speculation than about careful review of a number of dramatic episodes of actual U.S. history. Blight's analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis or the stand-off between American and Soviet tanks at the Berlin Wall might be geared toward proving his point about Kennedy's hypothetical governance past Nov. 22, 1963, but it is also independently interesting as a reflection on a presidency full of drama, heroism, and tragedy.
Blight—a researcher at Brown University who has also written a book on this subject—is an engaging on-screen presence and is well filmed in striking black and white by Masutani. He lays out his argument with great clarity and organization, and supports it with a wealth of archival footage that provides both insight and variety. We see Kennedy in public charming the press and fending off criticisms that he was too timid to take the Soviet Union to war. But we also hear his more guarded thoughts—through recorded strategy sessions, phone calls with advisors, and letters to Jackie—and glimpse the incredible strength he needed to pursue peace during his short term. Under intense pressure to fight the communists from military men who had witnessed American might triumph in WWII and Korea, Kennedy had to use all his political skills and take great political risks to avoid combat—and the terrifying threat of nuclear war that would have accompanied it. What Virtual JFK demonstrates most convincingly is not that Kennedy would have stopped war in Vietnam had he lived, but that he did stop war in a number of places while he lived.
The documentary's most affecting sequence wordlessly renders the long-familiar event of Kennedy's assassination, cutting parts of Abraham Zapruder's famous footage together with footage of Kennedy's inauguration and also footage of him as a much younger man enjoying relaxed, outdoors time with his family. We don't see the shot—we've seen it many times elsewhere—but we do see moments of a young man who looks blissfully free of weighty life-or-death concerns of international politics. Framed from a low angle, this boyish Kennedy stands up in a moving convertible, the wind flowing through his hair, framed against an optimistic blue sky. It's a beautiful sequence that breathes new life into an old, oft-displayed event.
In fact, Masutani shows considerable skill in audiovisual areas throughout, and his efforts are well-rendered by Docurama's DVD release. In addition to the nice interview footage of Blight, he also provides a somber, pensive score that sets just the right mood, and a few more whimsical bits of footage alongside the directly historical stuff: when Nixon is quoted brutally attacking Kennedy's military inaction, we see several snippets of unrelated boxing matches. Archival images and sound are far from pristine, but are handled well and subtitled generously (though the disc doesn't include subtitles for the larger film). My one major gripe here is that by choosing an intense 2.35:1 aspect ratio and sticking with it throughout the film, Masutani mangles the look of pretty much all of the archival footage, which would have originally been presented in 1.33:1 television-friendly formats. Even if he had chosen a single ratio instead of switching back and forth as the footage dictated, I think a less extreme 1.78:1 look would have been more appropriate.
Special features include a theatrical trailer for the film and 40 minutes worth of presidential addresses from Johnson about Vietnam. These consist of three unedited recordings of speeches on the matter: one from '66, one from '67, and one from '68 (with this last one in color!). These extras will be tedious for the casual viewer, but since the documentary itself requires at least some sustained interest in history, it's likely that some viewers will find these speeches very interesting—even without the tidy editing and tone-setting score of the film proper.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Virtual JFK looks a little less shiny in comparison with other excellent documentaries that have been made on this period of American history—especially Errol Morris' brilliant The Fog of War, which Blight himself was involved with heavily as a historical advisor. Masutani's style in Virtual JFK feels more than a little derivative of Fog—especially with its score, its interview style, and its shots of dominos toppling each other.
Also, any good historian will notice that Blight's argument as presented in this documentary isn't handling all the relevant evidence. Kennedy's previous reactions to being pressured into war certainly present one kind of important evidence in the question of what he would have done about Vietnam, but here they appear to be the only factor. I'd like to have heard more about the post-'63 situation in Vietnam in particular, and how it was similar to or different from the other crises that Kennedy was able to avert without recourse to war.
An engaging history lesson that's more traditional than its marketing implies, Virtual Kennedy delivers important wisdom from a period of U.S. history plagued by international crises. Effectively, the documentary doesn't try to make neat parallels between Vietnam and the current wars in the Middle East, but presents its material in such a way that intelligent viewers will find those connections themselves. Our only direct hint of its timeliness comes at the end, with an apt anonymous quotation:
"Every time history repeats itself, the price of the lesson goes up."
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