Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Documentary Channel: "Virtual JFK"

During the month of December, the Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films during the month.

Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kenned Had Lived takes a look at what might have happened regarding the American commitment in Vietnam if President John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated and had been able to make the critical decisions. Combining rarely seen film clips and presidential conversations, this is a thoroughly researched work that is among the very finest political documentaries I have ever seen.

The film is the work of director Koji Masutani and co-producer James Blight, who narrates the film. Blight, a PhD from the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, is well-versed in the history of the Vietnam War; he was the principal substantive adviser to documentarian Errol Morris for his Oscar-winning film The Fog of War. That film detailed the role that Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, played in America's role in Vietnam during much of the 1960s.

Blight's hypothesis in Virtual JFK is spelled out in a question he asks early on in the film; "Does it matter who is president on issues of war and peace?" Blight asks other questions on the same theme, arguing perhaps that public sentiment may hold the answer. But Blight's response to his own question is that, yes, it does matter who leads the country and makes the decisions regarding a commitment to war. His evidence consists of six events during the JFK administration when he could have sent troops into combat, but refused. Thus, argues Blight, our time in Vietnam would have been much shorter and there would have been much greater loss of life eventually, if JFK had been alive to set the agenda.

The first urgent situation regarding war in JFK's presidency came only a few months after he took office; this was the Bay of Pigs crisis in Cuba in April, 1961. Kennedy decided not to send in American troops to support the Cuban rebels who were trying to kill Castro. His reasoning, as explained through his answers in film clips shown here, is that sending in troops on foreign soil to fight when there has been no attack on the United States is counter to our long-standing policies. At a press conference the day after he made statements to this end, we see the president face some pretty tough criticism from the reporters at a White House press conference. Even Blight in his narration says that Kennedy knew that he would be sensed as a "failure" by many Americans, based on this decision.

Other events include the Berlin Crisis in late 1961, when the Russians wanted to take control of all of Berlin just after the Berlin wall had been built and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. During these situations and the others examined in this film, Blight notes how JFK resisted the urge to go to war, despite recommendations to do just that from his main advisers as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Kennedy preferred the relative orderliness of negotiations to the impulse of declaring war and as it turned out, met with great success with his non-combative philosophy.

There are numerous film clips that detail everything that surrounded these events and the makers of this film have included not just images of Kennedy, but also comments from the Russian leaders of the time, such as then foreign minister Andrei Gromyko and chairman Nikita Khrushchev. We also see the famous Kennedy sense of humor on display again and again in this film, especially in his give and take with reporters. At one point, a journalist mentions to Kennedy that the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution staing that the president was a failure in office, to which JFK responded, "I'm sure it was passed unanimously."

Blight's arguments are well-structured and well thought out. He mentions how another leader who was not as skeptical or cautious as Kennedy would have made decisions that might have caused disastrous actions. Yet, this film is not hero-worship of Kennedy, but rather one that presents the president as a serious man who took on his critics with the proper tone, maintaining his role as a leader who would battle on as he would see fit. If it meant arguing with his chiefs of staff, even if he was alone in his beliefs, so be it.

I loved watching the old film clips, especially the ones of the press conferences I had never seen before. It's pretty neat today with the passage of time to see reporters scribbling down notes on a legal pad with pen or pencil in hand - no smart phones or laptops back then! It's also fascinating to hear the sound clips in this film; the most enlightening for me is the one where he argues with several generals about not attacking Cuba during the missile crisis. This shows the president as his most defiant - and arguably - his most persuasive tone.

As this film ends, we see the results of how Lyndon Johnson's decisions as President turned out. "We intend to bury no one and we do not intend to be buried," is one of LBJ's quotes; these of course, turned out to be highly ironic words, given the tens of thousands of American troops who would lose their lives in Vietnam.

The overall structure of this work with its film clips and statements given by James Blight along with a beautifully sensitive musical score by Joshua Kern make Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived a memorable and necessary film. It is very highly recommended.

Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived will be shown on Documentary Channel on Friday, December 30 at 8:00 and 11:00 PM (EST).

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