There are few things as genuinely thrilling as a truly well-made documentary. Koji Masutani's Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived is that, a masterfully assembled and strenuously researched "what-if" scenario in film form. Those "what if" questions have haunted Americans of all stripes, from historians to vets to grieving families, for decades; they formed the backbone of Oliver Stone's JFK. What were Kennedy's intentions in Vietnam? Were we on a path to withdrawal when those shots rang out in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963? What would have happened in Southeast Asia if Kennedy had finished out his presidency?
Director Masutani, and on-screen counterpart James G. Blight (who co-authored the book that the film is based on), attempt to answer those questions by examining how Kennedy handled military crises throughout his brief Presidency. "Six times, when he was put to the test," Blight tells us, "John F. Kennedy avoided war."
In an attempt to craft what is called, alternately, a "virtual history" or "counterfactual history" (this is where the awkward title, which conjures images of a Camelot-era Sims, comes from), each of those six moments are examined, one by one: the Bay of Pigs, the Laos crisis, the Berlin crises, the Cuban missile crisis, and the discussions of withdrawal immediately before his assassination. Within that structure, the resulting film is a thorough and complex examination of the Kennedy presidency, of his decisions, and what we can infer from them.
The film is a triumph of montage; Masutani (who also edited) uses little in the way of recreations or created illustration, and Blight himself is barely glimpsed. Most of what we see is a wealth of smartly compiled archival footage, which places JFK front and center in his own story. Excepting Blight's occasional interpretations, the late president mostly speaks for himself, via extensive use of his speeches, private recordings of phone calls and meetings with his inner circle, and remarkable clips from his famous afternoon press conferences. That footage is particularly interesting; we see a President who is candid, funny, and quick on his feet. (Some of the questions also remarkably parallel current inter-party squabbling; the more things change, the more they stay the same.) Perhaps the most shocking piece of tape is a clip from less than four hours before his assassination, as commentators wait for Kennedy to arrive at an appearance, mentioning a slight security breach earlier in the day and casually discussing the assassination of William McKinley.
The assassination itself is handled tastefully and rather heartbreakingly, while the picture nimbly moves through the Johnson years, summing up the escalation of the Vietnam conflict with a simple sequence of dates, casualties, and snippets from speeches. The film's only real flaw is that it doesn't quite seem to pull everything together at its conclusion--it seems to fall short of a final analysis, one that really answers its titular question. If Kennedy had lived, the film argues, we would have gotten out of Vietnam. But what then?
As mentioned, there is precious little in the way of new footage, so as far as video quality goes, Masutani is mostly at the mercy of his archival materials. Quality varies, from scratchy home movies and sketchy kinescopes to well-preserved black-and-white photos and news footage. Even the roughest stuff still looks pretty decent, and aesthetic concerns are certainly overruled by historical ones. The scant new footage is mostly sharp, though I spotted some jittery artifacting during a shot of standing dominoes on a stark white background.
The 2.0 stereo track is adequate, and about what you'd expect for a historical documentary (there's certainly nothing loss in the decision to keep it simple). Again, some of the archival materials are prickly--tape hiss and occasional moments of inaudibility (thankfully supplemented by frequent on-screen captions) are present, but not to a point of distraction.
No subtitles are offered.
Docurama has included three of "Lyndon Johnson's Statements on Vietnam," excerpted within the film: one from 1966 (7:40), one from 1967 (16:41), and the famous speech from 1968 (15:31), in which he announced that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination for President. The speeches don't exactly make for entertaining viewing, but they're a nice historical supplement to have, though I frankly would have rather had longer versions of some of the Kennedy press conferences.
The sharply-edited Theatrical Trailer (2:14) closes out the rather meager bonus features.
Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived may come up a bit short in its final passages, but it is a fascinating and well-crafted documentary nonetheless, diligently researched and carefully constructed.
(Note: Kennedy enthusiasts would also be wise to check out last year's re-release of "The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection", as well as the recently re-released "Kennedy" miniseries, starring Martin Sheen as the late president.)
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.