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by Michael Rowin
September 17, 2008 3:03 AM
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REVIEW | Unanswerable Questions: Koji Masutani's "Virtual JFK"

A scene from Koji Masutani's "Virtual JFK." Image courtesy of Film Forum.

An inevitable byproduct of the study of history is the "What if?" game, the second-guessing of key events and decisions in light of the disasters that followed. One of the great American "What if?"s of the twentieth century is of course born from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the cutting short of the promise of Camelot and all the youthful hope it embodied. Of course, Kennedy came to embody much of that youthful hope once he was immortalized by untimely death, and the romanticization of his presidency by the public in the last four decades has often had less to do with what he actually did in office than what he symbolizes as a lasting pop culture icon.

First-time filmmaker Koji Masutani's "Virtual JFK" uses a different approach and grounds the "What if?"s surrounding Kennedy in historical analysis by enlisting Brown University professor James G. Blight to take the viewer through Kennedy's foreign policy during his brief term and how it might have been applied to the escalating situation in Vietnam after the time of his murder. Such an approach makes "Virtual JFK" less a documentary than a sort of feature-length lecture, a growing trend in the political doc genre in the wake of "An Inconvenient Truth." It's a subgenre that doesn't make for the most visually explosive cinema -- "Virtual JFK" essentially consists of Blight's narration explicated by Kennedy press conferences and other archival footage, including some revealing taped conversations between Kennedy and his advisors. But despite his film's dryness, Masutani successfully sells a provocative, if one-sided, thesis that goes beyond unprovable "What if?"s and takes on the more fruitful debate of how much a single man can effect the course of history.

Masutani and Blight seek to show how at the peak of the Cold War Kennedy avoided all-out battle, often against the wishes of military high command -- by refusing unilateral U.S. military action after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion, by backing down from a head-on confrontation with the Soviet Union during the construction of the Berlin Wall, by avoiding full scale nuclear war as the Cuban Missile Crisis terrified the nation -- and how that track record initially extended to Kennedy's handling of Vietnam, which he was beginning to reconsider as a chaotic, Communist-embattled country that wouldn't benefit from direct American intervention. Of course, a bullet in Dallas on November 22, 1963 turned that case file over to Lyndon B. Johnson, who proceeded to block out anti-intervention advice from Vice President Humphrey and commit to an escalation in military involvement by the U.S. in Vietnam. The rest isn't the stuff of "Virtual JFK"'s "counterfactual history," but real, tragic history.

Oliver Stone covered much the same ground by way of conspiracy theory in just ten minutes of his controversial 1991 epic "JFK" when Donald Sutherland's anonymous ex-CIA insider tells Kevin Costner's crusading Jim Garrison about the establishment's need to off the president because of his reluctance to enter a conflict in Vietnam (see, he was on to something!). Despite its loonier excesses and conjectures, "JFK" is infinitely more watchable than "Virtual JFK" thanks to its thrillingly kinetic filmmaking, something that Masutani's documentary can't quite muster even with its revelatory news footage and some rudimentary editing tricks (bombed Vietnam villages restored in backwards slo-mo). Yet the simple point -- that different men make different presidents and thus very different decisions -- is gotten across quite effectively, and all the more hauntingly so by being relayed at the end of the term of a current president who is never mentioned in "Virtual JFK" but who doesn't need to be for the film's implication of his failed, belligerent foreign policy to fully resound.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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