Virtual JFK delicately lays out a ballsy case using a hypothetical to prove a point: Had President John F. Kennedy lived, perhaps the bloody conflict in Vietnam may never have manifested. By extension, war and the world as we know it would be galactically different. Hearty takes and outtakes by Kennedy, his peers and nemeses intertwine objectively to thwart anyone who pegs the work as purely absurdist. On the contrary, the film has a chance to inspire many unfamiliar with the man who was country’s 35th president and by offering the opportunity to witness—almost interactively—his sound persona during desperate times. The take at the ticket counter could draw slews of history buffs and curiosity seekers alike.
Foreign-born filmmaker Koji Masutani structured the doc as if bulleting a syllabus. Each chapter is plotted around Kennedy’s assassination, but that moment is not dwelled on nor actually shown. And why show the carnage? Much more compelling is diving into the setup that led to that fatal day in Dallas and what transpired thereafter.
The crux of the piece turns inward and looks at all the of the steps and, some would say, missteps that the former U.S. Senator took to prevent war six times. When the seventh came, and again the country faced the prospect of war, Kennedy was no longer manning the controls. The work retreats back in time, and the viewer is seated in the room rubbing elbows with the press corps (comprised of mostly crusty curmudgeons quite deliberate about flexing with their verbal venom). The humble but confident president fielded all their questions. A far cry from today’s slick press conferences where the toothless media conglomerates are too timid to turn to blows for fear of reprisals. Still, back then, the black-and-white two-shot back-and-forths reveal JFK as a steady thinker and a very open-minded man who seemed to have a willingness to be germane and forthright even when he had every right to dish a petty “No comment.” Further, Kennedy’s sincerity and genuine candor in his humor wins you over. And in both answers and actions, Kennedy showed restraint while the four-starred hawks and the seething journos with agendas wanted war and blood.
So often the creators of political films are dead set on proving their thesis before they show the first frame. Masutani takes it slow and summons a narrator straight outta Providence (Brown University, that is) in Professor James G. Blight. Blight’s wry and witty commentaries deliver penetrating facts without ebbing over the levees into distortions or pretensions. Through his sharp voiceovers, the film becomes a nutritious adventure rather than a lecture that sticks too close to a canned script.
After Kennedy died, thousands of advisors headed to Vietnam and so too did hundreds of thousands of troops to tamp the Communists. When thrust under the heat to show a penchant for aggression, Kennedy sent the warmongers packing. He succinctly said, “I hope I am a responsible president. That’s my intention.” So obvious through the passive aggressive manner is that this a parallel to the war in Iraq. So blatant are the two decades and scenarios linked that it’s spooky. The same rhetoric is spelled out when military advisors plead that the calamitous situation in South Asia has gone beyond their control and that there is no other recourse but to go to combat. Kennedy admits that he’s playing on an evolved field unlike any other. He said because of human ingenuity, “We happen to live in the most dangerous time in the human race.” He knew the stakes were high and yet, poised and bound by his calling, he was determined to get peace every time.
Professor Blight asks two pivotal questions: “Does it matter who’s president in matters of war and peace?” and “Are the forces that drive nations into conflict far more impersonal—out of the control of any single human being, even the president?” He later answers them explaining that yes, one man, the president, matters and can indeed keep peace. Still, the spelling out of his side is not conclusive. The viewer is able to digest the prof’s position but still figure out where to land individually. In a sense, this film could begin a new genre of virtual histories that depend on factual history to probe what-ifs and risk a heavy gamble in doing so. But what a ride it is!
Distributor: Sven Kahn Films/The Global Media Project
Director/Writer: Koji Masutani
Producers: Peter O. Almond, James G. Blight, Janet M. Lang, Koji Masutani and David A. Welch
Running time: 120 min.
Release: September 17 ltd.