Film Review: ‘JFK: A President Betrayed’

JFK A President Betrayed

An overreaching title undermines this JFK documentary, making a pre-theatrical pit stop on DirecTV.

“JFK: A President Betrayed” is a documentary betrayed, ultimately, by its overreaching title. Despite claims of having uncovered new evidence to support its thesis that President Kennedy was pursuing a warming of the Cold War in the days leading up to his death, the doc focuses so intently on the buildup to that moment as to leave scant time to support those conclusions, and virtually none to examine the roots of Lyndon B. Johnson’s disastrous escalation in Vietnam. In addition, the movie vaguely implies that Kennedy’s opposition to a hawkish military establishment might have cost him his life — an assertion made in the movie “JFK” and any number of conspiracy theories, but again, mere speculation in historical terms.

Amid a deluge of Kennedy docs, this one — written, directed, edited and co-produced by Cory Taylor, and classily narrated by Morgan Freeman — lands on DirecTV On Demand before a limited theatrical run coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the assassination. Yet grading the onslaught on a curve, it’s no better than the fifth or sixth best in the batch.

Admittedly, the history of how Kennedy was led into the Bay of Pigs debacle — seeking to depose Fidel Castro — and subsequently found an artful way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis played a powerful role in his thinking, and his desire to move the world away from the brink of nuclear war. Moreover, Taylor and his research partners present documentary evidence not only about Kennedy’s memo to draw down the U.S. presence in Vietnam, but also about back-channel efforts to negotiate with both Castro and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev. These materials include an interview with Khruschev’s son, Sergei, as well as James Galbraith, the son of Kennedy administration ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith.

It’s also well documented that elements in the military were eager to invade Cuba, while Kennedy was more pragmatic, repeatedly playing out the potential repercussions by asking, as one aide recalls, “What does the other guy do if we do this?”

Still, the implications of “JFK: A President Betrayed” fall a little too heavily into “what if?” territory, assuming a best-case scenario in which Kennedy would have followed through on every peace-oriented impulse expressed in his famous American U. speech, which was clearly designed to send a message to Khrushchev and the Soviets.

It’s certainly a reassuring and popular notion — that had Kennedy lived, the U.S. would have been spared all the tumult and pain of Vietnam, and the wrenching cultural changes and frayed trust in authority the war helped instill particularly in a younger generation. Yet as several voices in the authoritative PBS doc “JFK” suggest, among the tragic aspects of Kennedy’s death is never knowing whether those hints of greatness would have been fulfilled in a second term.

In a broader sense, though, it’s hard not to see this month’s wave of wrinkles, old and new, on the Kennedy legacy for precisely what it is: using the guy who famously stood up to the communists in what amounts to the ultimate expression of capitalism.

Film Review: 'JFK: A President Betrayed'

Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, Nov. 12, 2013. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production

(Documentary) A Brainstorm Media release of an Agora Prods. presentation. Produced by Darin Nellis, Nicole Corbin, Michael Gittelson, Arnie Gittelson. Executive producers, Nellis, Cory Taylor.

Crew

Directed, written, edited by Cory Taylor. Camera (color/B&W), Richard Chisholm, David Linstrom, Taylor; music, James T. Sale; sound, Max Gittelson, Dwayne Dell, Johnathan Cohen.

With

Sergie Khrushchev, Viktor Sukhodrev, James Galbraith, Robert Schlesinger, William Vanden Heuvel, Candis Cousins, Andrea Cousins. Narrator: Morgan Freeman.

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  1. Macbaldy says:

    Somehow, a person–Brian Lowry–who wasn’t born until after JFK’s time is forsaking the testimony of people who were there…virtually. That’s flagrant revisionism. But, don’t entertainment reviewers have intimate knowledge of “overreaching”?

  2. OhPlease says:

    You think Kennedy was some innocent little peace loving ninny with clean hands? He had a deal with the mafia to help them industrialize Cuba into a hospitality/gambling hub if they helped. He last minute pulled back planes and U.S. troops as well as changed the entry point of the invasion because he was requested to keep the warfare as least destructive as possible by his mafia buddies (can’t build resorts on rubble as quick). Many people died at the bay of pigs because he repeatedly withdrew US aid. If you think The Soviet’s wernt a real threat you are an idiot. The Cuban Missile Crisis – hello? Do you think we wouldn’t be speaking Mandarin or Russian by now if we hadn’t secured territory in South east Asia and the Caribbean? The Cold War was a war that had to be fought. My father was in Vietnam and Cambodia and he knows EXACTLY why he was fighting! I’m sorry but Kennedy was a adulterer who ran around with mafiosos and had a family history wrought with organized crime. Oh but he must have been so innocent! He got taken out by the very people he trusted to help do his dirty work. Must have been difficult for him when Sam Giancana and Roselli were brought in to help with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Bay of Pigs invasion considering they already knew each other when Giancana helped throw the votes in Illinois for JFK to win. You know to get the mafia to do stuff for you – you have to promise them something in return. Maybe on promise was that they would have a hand in the hospitality/gambling business on the Island and perhaps even hold political seats in Cuba if they so desired to aid in the overthrow. So what all do you think the mafia did to help with the Invasion huh? Do you think they were very happy when they performed operations on the Island and then Kennedy made decisions that ruined the outcome for them to benefit from the communist overthrow? Not very happy, not hardly. Neither were the CIA or FBI, who had top level advisors in so many words fired after the disaster at the Bay of Pigs.

    There is a time in History where leaders need to not be pussies – and the Bay of Pigs and Communist threat was one of them. Sorry if you don’t like it, but territory is not gained not is it protected by peace. Show me one revolution that ended non violently. War is a nevessary evil. Deal with it. JFK put National Security in harms way by being associated with organized criminals that had interests with leaders and people that were not so savory. He should not have been assassinated, but I can see how maybe he was the bringer of his own demise to a certain extent. You roll with pigs don’t expect to not get covered in crap.

  3. Melody Miller says:

    This documentary is among the very best I have ever seen for it has hard evidence of what President Kennedy intended to do regarding Vietnam, and that was withdraw the adviser type troops as soon as it was politically possible after the ’64 election. He had laid the groundwork, which a lot of commentators don’t seem to realize. He began the day before he left for Dallas with the signed memo ordering the start of that policy with the withdrawal of a thousand troops, who were only supposed to be advising and not in combat, although some violated orders and did fight. But he had always refused to commit combat ground units. This documentary got to the heart of his thinking based on what he actually told the people with whom he was the closest, and what he actually did. It also showed that even people he thought he could trust, like Averill Harriman, betrayed him by not following his order to send a cable to Amb. Galbraith to explore the possibility of negotiations with North Vietnam leaders to end hostilities.
    To criticize this documentary, that has new insights and new evidence from valid on the scene sources not sought out before, by saying that PBS had more authoritative sources and that they said we will never know what might have happened in the second term, is not to recognize that they did not have all the facts and knowledge of those in the “JFK: A President Betrayed” documentary. To say that we “will never know” has become the accepted thing to say over the last 50 years, but it is NOT accurate, as we who were associated with the members of the Kennedy Administration, who knew the sources, especially Robert and Edward Kennedy, know without question. John F. Kennedy would not have gone full bore into a war in Vietnam. Period. The cold war would have ended sooner as Serge Khrushchev knows as a result of discussions with his father and we’d have had a more peaceful relationship with Cuba worked out as JFK was doing back channel, and Castro told John F. Kennedy, Jr. in their meeting before he too died tragically too young.
    The New Frontier would have changed the world for the better even more than it already had accomplished, and John F. Kennedy would have led us to a more peaceful and safer world. Instead of listening to each other and parroting the standard patter, the so called “authoritative talking heads” should update their thinking with the newer evidence that has been revealed and now declassified. Then they would know that “JFK: A President Betrayed” is the most accurate documentary ever made about the foreign policy challenges in John F. Kennedy’s presidency, the horrific pressures he faced and the courage it took to stand up to them. The facts and conclusions in this documentary can not be ignored, nor flippantly dismissed unless one thinks the truth doesn’t matter.
    – Melody Miller, JBK,RFK,&EMK Staff

    • Jim Corwin says:

      Thank you and Elen Aksings for the great comments. It bothers me so much that the really intelligent things to say are in the comments section of an article in Variety and not in the article itself.

  4. Olivia says:

    I love Elen Aksings review of this review.

  5. Elen Aksings says:

    With all due respect, I disagree with much of your review of this documentary, as would the sold out house who viewed it last night in the Bay Area. I’d like to think I’ve seen just about every Kennedy documentary, and this one absolutely had some ingredients the others did not – namely the fascinating line up of contributors who were by Kennedy and Khrushchev’s side. Also, to hear from the children of people who were tight with Kennedy felt like we were given a special insight. Galbraith and others were extremely intelligent and their input was riveting. I’ve never seen a JFK documentary that had so many respected current University scholars and professors. While some of the same topics may have been covered in other films, the depth of those interviewed was greater in A President Betrayed. Plus it has the most honest title!

    I must ad, the only part of your review that REALLY bothered me was your last paragraph. “In a broader sense, though, it’s hard not to see this month’s wave of wrinkles, old and new, on the Kennedy legacy for precisely what it is: using the guy who famously stood up to the communists in what amounts to the ultimate expression of capitalism.” You could not be more wrong about this with regards to this documentary! First of all, very few documentaries make money, and as with this film – they are usually a labor of passion and love of the subject, or an intense desire to further educate current and future generations. Perhaps in your business you have, but I’ve never met a documentary film maker who was in it for profit, that doesn’t make sense. Wouldn’t a film critic be well aware of this fact?

    Film maker Cory Taylor has studied foreign politics and the Cold War his entire life, actually visiting many countries to learn the history as a young boy with his father. When Cory Taylor was very young his father worked for Bobby Kennedy’s Presidential campaign. He sat atop his dad’s shoulders and hear Kennedy speak just weeks before he was shot. I absolutely understand cynicism in today’s world, but it’s insulting and so far off base to suggest Kennedy is being used here in the ultimate expression of capitalism. Those of us who feel so strongly about what Kennedy stood for, and how his death changed the world forever, really would work tirelessly to continue to tell his story, and not for profit. I, like Mr. Taylor, was born a few years after Kennedy’s murder. In my youth I was well aware of the gravity of losing this champion of Civil Rights who sincerely believed war was not inevitable and that man could do better.

    • Melody Miller says:

      That was a beautiful and brilliantly stated comment regarding the documentary “JFK: A President Betrayed.” I tried to second your comment with what I know first hand in a comment of my own. Thanks for speaking up so well! – Melody Miller

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