[22 November 2009]
This month marks the 46th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. The handsome young President was the first leader of the media age as well as wildly popular with young adults and his tragic death cemented his legacy as not just a political figure but also a cultural icon. Thus, it should be no surprise that Kennedy has become a fixture in cinema. JFK has appeared in some form in narrative films ranging from JFK to Forrest Gump and in countless documentaries. In all, Kennedy has over 300 IMDB.com entries split between archival footage and dramatic portrayals.
One would naturally think that there would be little left to explore in regards to Kennedy’s presidency, assassination or private life and, indeed, many of the existing works on the man simply rehash the conclusions and footage from previous films. This anniversary of Kennedy’s death is particularly significant, and makes new takes on the material more difficult; it marks the point at which Kennedy’s life will have been analyzed for as many years as he lived. Docurama Films’ DVD Virtual JFK does the near impossible by presenting incredibly familiar information in a compelling and entertaining way.
Despite its somewhat morbid title, Virtual JFK spends the majority of its time focused on Kennedy’s life in office. Historian and co-author of the book of the same name James G. Blight is our host for an examination of some of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. After a brief explanation of “virtual” or “speculative” history, Blight presents the film’s simple but fascinating hypothesis: that Kennedy would have avoided escalation in Vietnam.
The filmmakers offer up several events as proof that Kennedy was committed to avoiding war, in Asia or elsewhere, at any cost. Beginning with the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s decision not to invade communist Cuba, the film makes a persuasive argument that JFK was willing to act decisively to prevent entering into war, even when that decision was politically unpopular. Kennedy is then shown making similar decisions in situations ranging from those seldom heard of (the Laos Crisis) to those that took America and the USSR to the brink of World War III (the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis).
Virtual JFK does an effective job of proving its case that the Vietnam War as we know it would not have taken place. Their case is helped most by information that most viewers will not be familiar with – news conference clips and audio clips of White House staff meetings. We are shown a side of the Kennedy presidency that is most often omitted from depictions of Camelot; a president assailed and second-guessed from all sides.
Kennedy’s resolve in the face of adversity is shown as the key to his presidency and is the main support for the film’s hypothesis. Shown lacking in this resolve is Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson. Johnson took the suggestions of his military advisors and committed troops to Vietnam in a move that would haunt the country, his presidency, and the man himself in the years that followed.
The film delves into some rarely covered material, but I felt it could have been a stronger work if given more time. At a brief 80-minutes, it feels more like an appetizer than a complete meal. There are many fascinating facts of which we’re only given a taste: Hubert Humphrey’s anti-war memo to Johnson and the subsequent fall out, for example. Visual and audio materials exist for most, if not all, of the topics in the film, so the filmmakers would have had ample room to expand.
Perhaps the film’s attributes are also its flaws; everything is done so well that you’ll want to see more. This documentary was intended to be a companion piece to the book, however; so I understand the decision to keep it brief even if I don’t agree with it.
Though it only spends about ten minutes on its “what if” scenario, Virtual JFK is an informative DVD nonetheless. Don’t let the concept of “virtual history” mislead you about the film. Virtual JFK is filled with well-documented facts and a lot of information that many other documentaries simply gloss over. The presentation is accurate and non-biased, making this film a must-see for anyone looking for a new take on the Kennedy presidency.