The assassination of John F. Kennedy is, without question, one of the most electrifying events in human history. People from every generation feel the horror while watching the assassination video as Kennedy's scalp is blown off on that fateful day in Dallas. Up until now, that's what most historians and filmmakers have focused on: his death. Koji Masutani, a 26-year-old first-time documentary director, takes another point of view, and instead looks at what could have happened if JFK had lived. In a nutshell, how much of a difference can an individual make?
The assassination of John F. Kennedy is, without question, one of the most electrifying events in human history. People from every generation feel the horror while watching the assassination video as Kennedy's scalp is blown off on that fateful day in Dallas. Up until now, that's what most historians and filmmakers have focused on: his death. Koji Masutani, a 26-year-old first-time documentary director, takes another point of view, and instead looks at what could have happened if JFK had lived. In a nutshell, how much of a difference can an individual make?

Masutani uses an approach called 'counterfactual history.' It is an approach championed by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. Essentially, Masutani looks at the run-up to the war in Vietnam, and dissects some 250-odd hours of Kennedy video and audiotapes. By examining what *would* have happened, in light of what *did* happen, humanity can learn valuable lessons.

"We're concerned about 'what if' history because we don't want to dive into what people might interpret as fiction. Because we are looking at what could happen, we don't want people to say, 'It's fiction. Why bother looking at it?', says Masutani. "But the point of virtual history is that we want to imagine...all of these outcomes as a way of stressing the contingent aspects of history. The big forces, the great forces don't drive history; individuals and their contingents do instead. Individuals count. That's one of the thrusts of this film. It makes a difference who's in office. If you remove Kennedy and put in Johnson, you might have a war. If you remove Johnson and put in Kennedy, you might avoid a war."

Narrated expertly by James Blight, a Professor of International Studies at the Watson Institute for International Studies, *Virtual JFK* both depresses and inspires. On one hand, we rue the fact that he (along with other powerful figures like Martin Luther King Jr., and JFK's brother Robert) was killed so abruptly, but we also celebrate his in-office accomplishments, many of them true feats considering the global atmosphere in the mid-1960s. While its title may suggest a film about the world after JFK's death, it's actually a collection of clips from press conferences, often just of Kennedy speaking. To an older person's ear, hearing him speak may trigger a wave of nostalgia, but to a younger person such as myself or Masutani, it's incredibly eye-opening.

"Before I made this film, when I was talking with my friends about presidential decision-making and problem-solving, we could rely on comparing only with [Bill] Clinton, [George W.] Bush, maybe [Ronald] Reagan, maybe [George H.W.] Bush I," says Masutani. "Otherwise, we don't really have any basis to judge what an eloquent president would be like."

It's astonishing just how smooth Kennedy is. No matter what the press throws at him (and believe me, there's a lot of innuendo and accusations), he wades his way through the comments, slowly and tactfully. Laughter erupts in the press room more than once.

"You only see a part of the press conferences," says Masutani. "It's amazing to see how engaging he is, throughout a 40-minute press conference. You never get bored."

The film has obvious implications in contemporary times, in the era of bound-and-gagged formulaic journalism and the veil of secrecy and lies that covers the presidency of George W. Bush. While hesitant to comment on the current situation in Iraq, Masutani says that foreign policy is definitely one way to alienate oneself from other countries. All it takes is a wrong or hasty decision by an individual, and things can spiral out of control.

Masutani doesn't spell things out for us, though. He's not banging on the lectern and trying to pound a point home. He prefers that the audience form their own conclusions and comparisons. There is not one single interview with anybody in the entire documentary. No one from Kennedy's inner circle, no relatives, no politicians. All we get is JFK's voice, cutting and clear.

"Viewers needed to form their own opinion," says Masutani. "The fewer filters between the viewer and Kennedy, the better."

Watching this documentary, it's jarring to realize that history does repeat itself. Perhaps by using the counterfactual approach, we may actually learn how to stop the vicious pattern. Leaders like Kennedy and King should not have had to die in vain.

The DVD is now available at VirtualJFK.com.
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