Despite its subtitle, tyro helmer Koji Masutani’s “Virtual JFK” does not qualify as “what if” speculation, but rather conducts a historical examination of the tremendous pressures brought to bear on President Kennedy to go to war and his unerring ability to avoid conflagrations that inevitably consumed those around him. Successor Lyndon B. Johnson, under far less political compulsion, took the opposite tack. Filmmakers underline the immediate relevance of their conclusion: In matters of war and peace, who we elect president is crucial. Opening Sept. 17 at Gotham’s Film Forum, docu will likely preach to the choir.
It comes as a shock to discover, mainly through extensive footage of Kennedy’s fascinating press conferences, how fraught with criticism and downright hostility his 1,000-day tenure was, the Camelot myth retroactively obscuring deep national division. Docu chronicles six episodes in which the Pentagon, the Republicans, and many within Kennedy’s own party considered armed attack the better option — from Kennedy’s choice not to dispatch waiting Marines to reverse the Bay of Pigs fiasco to his refusal to fire on Russian tanks to halt the building of the Berlin Wall.
Along with Robert Drew’s recent “A President to Remember,” “Virtual JFK” reps an extended glimpse into a bygone era of statesmanship. In Masutani’s selection of clips, watching Kennedy field astute questions and scathing critiques with thoughtfulness and wit proves extremely illuminating; his weighing of complex factors in an international situation and consciousness of how much rides on his decisions strikes a now unfamiliar note. At the same time, these filmed sessions reveal an even greater sea change in the nature of the press.
In answering the docu’s ostensible main query, whether the U.S. would have become entangled in the Vietnam War if Kennedy had lived, Masutani presents footage of Kennedy wrestling with the as-yet-unresolved issue, then blasts his audience with images of bombs and generic scenes of the ongoing conflict under Johnson, while mounting death-count figures trace the war’s escalation.
Producer/commentator/historian James G. Blight, appearing on camera, argues the case for following Kennedy’s pattern of sending help but not combat troops into the divided nation, while drawing implicit but hard-to-miss contrasts with current presidential doctrines.