Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived Dir. Koji Masutani

[Global Media Project; 2008]

Conservatism is ascendant in America. We all know this. Even Clinton and Obama are, like it or not, effectively conservative politicians. Virtual JFK is both a response to and an argument against this conservative political climate. Arguing for a political reading of a certain figure in a particular moment of time -- John F. Kennedy, Vietnam, and the Soviet-related events that transpired around it -- the film provides a psychological profile and defense (even a panegyric) of Kennedy, a profile argued according to terms wholly foreign to the reining conservative conception of "the hero." While many conservatives believe that the Vietnam war, like our current conflict in Iraq, was a simple battle of good vs. evil, one that we ultimately would have won had our leaders not lacked the resolve and the moral vision necessary to carry it out, the film suggests otherwise and extends its implications even further. Its contention: our understanding of Kennedy effects our understanding of Bush.

Despite having the misleading subtitle (Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived), which might very well lead people to believe it to be more science fiction than documentary, the actual movie is a psychological analysis of Kennedy's responses to a number of national crises mirroring those that our nation currently face. The reason for the misleading subtitle is obvious: the filmmakers view themselves as political agents and wish to rally the voters with this project. Unfortunately, as Michael Moore taught us so definitively, the left does not seem to be competent enough to handle Jeremiad’s at the moment. The film does briefly speculate about the circumstances of the war had Kennedy lived and expresses moral condemnations, but moments like these are among the weaker of the film and detract from the finished product. Better to have just trusted that Kennedy of his own right would illustrate the points.

But mostly, Virtual JFK is not a dogmatic film, nor does it suffer from the flaws that so often (and so fatally) plague the misguided works of Michael Moore, Joel Bakan, and their cohorts. What we are not shown is this simplified world of good and evil, a world upon which, incidentally, both the left and right agree (the only difference being that in the Right’s take, power and justice just happen to both be gathered in our possession -- whereas, in the Left’s Foucauldian narrative, all authority and state coercion is suspect). Instead, we are shown a complex world in which political events unfold ambiguously, where governmental power acts for both good and ill. Through press clips and recordings, the film suggests that Kennedy understood the great burden of his position and the suffering that necessarily results from all state violence.

The film is in competent hands with first-time director and editor Koji Masutani. Masutani is clearly influenced by Errol Morris' Fog of War (the film's composer, Joshua Kern, is likewise influenced by Fog of War's Philip Glass), but there aren't too many documentary filmmakers (or composers, for that matter) who would be better to model one's early work after. Like Fog of War, the film leans heavily on news clips, internal footage, and audio recordings (at times the archival footage is achingly beautiful), and splices them together masterfully. Unlike Morris' film, however, which used footage of Robert S. McNamara to illustrate its narrative, this film structures its argument around the very stock footage of Kennedy it uses (Brown's James G. Blight takes McNamara's role as facilitator here, but his presence is substantially reduced).

In the film's version of Kennedy, we meet an extraordinary man, one of intelligence (a quality much dismissed today), decency, care, and patriotism. He's portrayed as eloquent and well-spoken – whether scripted or speaking impromptu – proud and yet surprisingly open-minded, even humble. Political revisionism or not, however, Virtual JFK looks deeply into a man and finds something other than the popular conception. Based on the evidence presented in this film -- partial for sure and conspicuously shoddy at moments, but mostly solid and ultimately persuasive -- any discussion that would slander this man or disparage his political reputation necessitates some sort of revision, both for the sake of the truth and also quite possibly for the security and prosperity of our future.

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