“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.