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DVD Review: Virtual JFK

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Every time history repeats itself, the price of the lesson goes up. — Anonymous

From the title Virtual JFK I expected a synthetic pseudo-documentary about how the world would be changed if JFK had lived and not expired when his first term did. Instead, filmmaker Koji Masutani asks "what if?" on the issue of Vietnam and JFK's strong stance against it. It is virtual history on trial.

Koji puts the virtual in JFK by stringing together press conferences, staff meetings, and calls that were germane to two decisions: 1) to stay out of Vietnam, and 2) to avoid the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem. These two efforts by Kennedy failed. The film, however, reminds us that Jack Kennedy the man and JFK the president changed everything. In 1961, President Kennedy sent 16,000 military advisors and some ships into Vietnam, while President Johnson sent in over 500,000 troops just a few years later.

JFK was a master of the game. During one pivotal meeting with his joint chiefs of staff, he asks them quietly what they want and they all agree — troops. He said he would agree to advisors and some ships and then asks them what else they want. They were speechless. JFK dropped a bomb on his joint chiefs instead of allowing them to drop a bomb or send one fighting man into Vietnam.

The filmmaker took few liberties with Kennedy's image. He was not inventive or loose with the facts. Masutani used many hours of film footage from Kennedy news conferences, private meetings, taped telephone conversations, and even a letter he wrote to Jackie, his wife, to tell a tale of peace that was never bought. Much of the footage is either new or rare press conference meetings.

Masutani's purpose, undisguised, in making this film was to clarify what he believed was resounding evidence that Kennedy did not want war with Vietnam contrary to much current revisionist history. And that Kennedy did not want war regardless to the "Red threat." Furthermore, it was his premise that Kennedy would have changed the world because he had no intentions of initiating or escalating Vietnam. When his many advisors said yes, Kennedy said no.

Midway through VIrtual JFK comes that Fort Worth press conference, his last. The first couple are happy with each other and the day as they dress and appear before a small crowd in Fort Worth. When Jackie enters the room someone comments on her lovely pink and black suit and what fine material it is made of. This second half closes with the assassination in Dallas, and a retrospective look at young Jack in color stills, home movies during college, and early political days.

The second half of the film focuses on LBJ as president, presider and decider on Vietnam. It includes his hawkish approach and the policies that brought the USA into the war. LBJ used JFK's words to sell the war in a speech to Congress; where he assures the listeners that Kennedy had no intention of blocking Vietnam, that Kennedy believed it to be domino-like. The world was just waiting to fall apart if we withdrew from Southeast Asia. The facts and not Johnson's pitch, however, speak for themselves — six times Kennedy avoided war when confronted with it, according to this film.

Virtual JFK does not ask the viewer to genuflect before Kennedy nor to mock President Johnson for his policies as commander-in-chief. It does take a bold stand and draws a deep line in the sand between what big military advisors wanted and what Kennedy wanted. I was a bit disappointed that the whole film was not about Kennedy but soon realized that to fully make the film's point it had to drag in Johnson and his 180-degree involvement with the escalation of the war in Vietnam.

The film continues to recount intermittent speeches by Johnson as troop death tolls mount from a mere 500 to a whopping 16,000. It does not bother with messy and bloody scenes of war. And it includes the same Johnson who later bows out of the 1968 election cycle. One can say with certainty that Jack hated war. One cannot say that with as much certainty that Johnson, whose hands were painted red with the blood of 58,000 US soldiers, also hated war. The narrator states that Johnson and Kennedy both hated Vietnam — it killed them prematurely. But not before it killed 58,000 Americans and two million Vietnamese under Johnson's presidency.

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