Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived

A documentary by Koji Masutani. Unrated. Plays Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, Monday, March 23, and Wednesday, March 25, at the Pacific Cinémathí¨que

Most, but not all, of what’s wrong with Virtual JFK is in its title and related premise: that there’s a “counterfactual” version of history ready to be studied parallel to the stuff in textbooks.

Watch the trailer for Virtual JFK.

Japan-based writer-director Koji Masutani, working in English, does make the case that Kennedy’s 1,000 days in the White House strongly imply that he never would have taken the United States into full-scale conflict in Southeast Asia had he lived. The film is structured around the stunning set of crises faced in his first two years as president—in Laos, Berlin and, most crucially, in Cuba—along with commentary from Brown University lecturer James G. Blight, seen in stark, black-and-white studio footage.

Undeniably, the young battle veteran proved his mettle by standing up to immense pressure toward war—and that was just from anticommunist hawks in his own party. (Then as now, kiddies, Republican leadership consisted largely of serial haters, religious nut jobs, and crooks in moralists’ clothing.) What’s more exciting, and especially relevant in this initial phase of Barack Obama’s ascendancy, is the personal style of the man. Caught in well-culled public addresses and strikingly adversarial news conferences—you mean, reporters used to have teeth?—Sir Kennedy of Camelot still reads as remarkably witty, self-assured, and thoughtful.

Like the U.S.A. itself, our concerned filmmaker seriously loses his way on November 22, 1963. After needlessly poeticizing the president’s gruesome murder, Masutani spends the rest of his 80-minute movie on how flummoxed successor Lyndon Johnson managed to blunder his way into lasting disaster. That, my friends, is not virtual history but a mere recitation of the obvious. That said, what’s well worth seeing here is not the might-have-been JFK but the one who really walked among us.