Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived (2008, Director: Koji Masutani): This film is somewhat awkardly titled. It’s not a re-creation of an alternate timeline where JFK survives. Rather, it’s a carefully-argued essay whose thesis is that, based on the way John F. Kennedy dealt with several military crises early in his presidency, he would not have escalated the war in Vietnam and that perhaps the tragedy of almost 60,000 American dead (not to mention 2,000,000 Vietnamese) could have been averted.
Narrated and written by Professor James Blight of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, who was Errol Morris’ advisor on The Fog of War, Virtual JFK examines six different crises faced by the young president in his abbreviated time in office. Two involved Cuba (the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962), one was European (the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961), and the other three involved Southeast Asia (two confrontations over Vietnam, one over Laos). In every case, Kennedy stared down the hawks in his administration and the military commanders who were advocating war. In every case, his caution avoided catastrophe, most notably in the Cuban missile crisis, which many historians believe was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. Blight has every reason to believe that Kennedy would have prevailed on the subject of Vietnam as well. What he doesn’t discuss is the possibility that this had anything to do with JFK’s assassination, although that hypothesis has been circulated by more than a few people.
Overall, this was enjoyable and well-argued, but not exceptional. On a personal level, I enjoyed seeing so much footage of Kennedy’s press conferences. His charisma is clearly evident in his good-natured exchanges with journalists, even when he was under considerable stress. It also surprised me how much Kennedy had to deal with in such a short time. The world was going through some major upheavals, and we’re fortunate that Kennedy was guiding a restless America with such a steady hand. This film shows us how much more tragic his death was than we may have believed. Apart from all the usual sentimental stuff about Camelot and the loss of hope, America lost a man of caution who had been a warrior of peace.
Incidentally, some reviewers have complained that the film makes a blunt parallel with George W. Bush and his handling of the Iraq war, but the connection is never made overtly. In the times we’re living in, however, it’s hard not to find a critique almost everywhere we look.