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Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived
Director, Koji Masutani

Review by Diego Costa
Paris, France.

Reoccurrences of Fact and Form

It would be perverse to say that the same nation that wages war against sovereign countries is just sick and tired of watching the consequences play out on its screens. Perverse and true, like most things human.

The Iraq war has spawned an apparently endless legion of war films specific to that conflict that has driven us to Iraq war-blindness. They soon begin to seem the same, and studios need to come up with smart marketing strategies to express the uniqueness of their film. Still, one is quick to find reviewers who promise "this is not just another Iraq war movie, really."

Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived (opening at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008) has to do with Iraq "only" as metaphor, but the gimmick here is clear. And, at times, it seems not much more than that: a fun concept, sloppily executed, yet with tons of extraordinary historical footage. Virtual JFK, for the most part, looks quite flat and sounds even flatter when studio shots are juxtaposed, so awkwardly, with the rich archival images. It's kind of like alternating sips of Starbucks coffee and a Lavazza espresso: the differences in quality will become ridiculously obvious. Except, of course, if you have no developed palate for coffee and don't know what Lavazza is, in which case Starbucks' may taste like gourmet coffee to you and, who knows, you may think that James Blight's narration shots were captured on super 8.

Director Koji Masutani's attempt at using Errol Morris' style as documentary template, Virtual JFK revisits Kennedy's stances on issues of war and peace to suggest (with the subtlety of blinking neon) that had he lived, Vietnam would have been a much smaller bloodstain on the American Flag.

This exercise in hypothesis – filled with redundant shots and clichéd tension music (one almost dreads the heartbeat audio effect coming) – has its rewards. They are mostly the surprising revelation, through candid footage of JFK's press conferences, that the president could be incredibly good-humored and bear the timidity of a repressed boy from Massachusetts in front of an inquisitive press – trying to gather the correct words and sound eloquent and presidential.

But Virtual JFK is little more than its premise and its amassed visual research. It borrows so much from the cinematic vocabulary of Morris' films without infusing the it with engaging substance. At times the JFK footage goes on so long you forget it exists within the context of this film and is being narrated by a Brown University professor, and you hope that he never comes back on screen.

Much of what bound together The Fog of War (2003) was the uncanny allure of its narrator's etched face and his larger-than-life historical significance. In Standard Operational Procedure (2008), too, there was an irrevocable weight behind (and exuding from) the eyes of the people facing the camera that made us pay attention, and care, and stand agape -- covering our open mouths in slow motion (How could they?). But here, Brown University professor James Blight's attempt at suture feels more Bill Nye the Science Guy than Robert McNamara. More explication than implication.



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