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Movie Review

Virtual JFK

'Virtual JFK' ponders a provocative 'What if?'

How John F. Kennedy handled crises is a key consideration in the film. How John F. Kennedy handled crises is a key consideration in the film. (Jfk presidential library)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 10, 2009
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The premise of "Virtual JFK," a documentary opening at the Coolidge today, is both profound and deeply inconsequential. What would American foreign policy have looked like if John F. Kennedy hadn't been assassinated? Specifically, would the Vietnam War have happened?

Short answer: No. Long answer: No, but we've got 80 minutes to fill. "Virtual JFK" is thus most useful and enlightening as a historical tour through the major crises of the Kennedy administration, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco the new president inherited through the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis and into the buildup in Southeast Asia. In each case, the film argues, Kennedy resisted pressure to engage more aggressively.

At times, that pressure was intense. The most valuable aspect of "Virtual JFK" is its archival use of videotaped news conferences and audiotaped staff meetings, both of which bring the administration's key players into fresh relief. To see Kennedy jousting with a hostile press is to be struck anew by his charm and strategic skills. The audiotapes made during the missile crisis are even more remarkable: As JFK argues that invading Cuba would cause Russia to take Berlin and start the final countdown, General Curtis LeMay calls the commander in chief "weak," compares him to Neville Chamberlain, and says, "You're in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President." "You're in there with me," Kennedy snarls back.

Fascinating stuff, but after a while the film runs out of things to say and falls back on clichés. The sentimental nadir comes when "Virtual JFK" takes on the assassination, intercutting the Zapruder film with home movies of the young Kennedy and putting a cheesy-sounding gunshot on the soundtrack. It gets worse: The film then runs the Zapruder footage and a Vietnam bombing attack in reverse to introduce the key what-if scenario, a music-video moment that insults the weighty issues at stake.

Elsewhere, director Koji Masutani takes a strict Errol Morris approach to documentary filmmaking: Philip Glass-style noodlings on the soundtrack and head-on interviews with the experts. There's only one expert, actually: James G. Blight, a professor of international relations at Brown University's Watson Institute. Blight's also a co-producer of "Virtual JFK" and coauthor of the much more thorough book on which it's based.

The movie is merely the CliffsNotes version of that book. Its conclusions are the same: JFK was starting to draw down his military advisers in Vietnam when he was killed, and his successor spoiled everything by escalating into war. "I don't think negotiation is necessarily the best way to win the girl," Johnson is damningly quoted as saying, and we're invited to ponder the issues of diplomacy versus military aggression as they pertain to today's international landscape.

Provocative this is; well-turned, it's not. The film's treatment of JFK borders on hagiography while LBJ emerges as a great villain; both attitudes do a disservice to ambitious, complicated men. "Virtual JFK" wants to be a compelling work of "counter-factual history." In Masutani's hands it's mostly a parlor game.

James G. Blight and coauthor Janet Lang will appear in person with the film tonight.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

VIRTUAL JFK

Written and directed by: Koji Masutani

Starring: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Fidel Castro

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 80 minutes

Unrated