Virtual JFK: Vietnam
If Kennedy Had Lived
Rating: 3 1/2
Directed by: Koji Masutani
Parental advisory: none
Playing at: Mayfair Theatre to Monday
The point behind the “virtual history” called Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived, is summarized in the theory of Cleopatra’s nose. If the queen of Egypt had a longer nose, she might not have attracted Marc Anthony, which would have changed the history of the Roman Empire and thus the history of almost everything since. Where we are today depends, to a large extent, on Cleopatra’s nose.
It also depends on John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Virtual JFK looks at the history of the president in the early 1960s and concludes that his actions — backing down from war in Laos, refusing to invade Cuba, pulling tanks back from the border as the Berlin Wall went up, in each case resisting unprecedented pressure by war-happy military advisers — probably meant that he would not have committed the U.S. so heavily into the Vietnam War.
It was up to his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to do that, and to carry the blame for the quagmire and the tens of thousands of deaths that resulted. This comes to the screen mostly in the words of James G. Blight, a Brown University professor whose theory remains unchallenged throughout the movie.
Director Koji Masutani, a visiting fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies, has compiled an alternative history that seems self-evident: Blight argues that a president can make a difference in foreign policy. The value of Virtual JFK is mostly in the archival footage that forms a quick and fascinating history of the era, and a reminder of how politics was done half a century ago.
Much of the documentary consists of films of press conferences at which Kennedy is confronted by a surprisingly hard-nosed corps of reporters who ask him tough questions — what did he think of Richard Nixon’s assertion that never has a man talked so big and acted so little? — and gives long, reasoned, often gracious answers. It may have been all on the surface, but hearing Kennedy explain why the news of the Cuban Missile Crisis was kept secret for a week for security reasons, but then promise that if the system proves to be “inimical to the free flow of news” he will change it, is to enter an almost unrecognizable era.
There is more to the movie than that, of course: Masutani has dug up interesting tapes of phone conversations in which we hear Kennedy and Johnson discussing the ins and outs of policy, and we hear Kennedy being bombarded by his generals who want to attack Cuba during the missile crisis. Besides the history lesson, though, what you come away with is something you create yourself: the unstated comparison between civility of relations during the Kennedy era and what has come since. There’s an air of hagiography around Virtual JFK, but the argument is persuasive: if his life was longer, just like Cleopatra’s nose, the world would be a better place.