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Originally published Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

A "What if" take on JFK, Vietnam

"Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived" is an absorbing and entertaining documentary that reviews John F. Kennedy's past behavior and asserts the counterfactual argument that he would not have chosen to go to war in Vietnam.

Special to The Seattle Times

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News footage is used to show President Kennedy as a complex man who remained sharp under tremendous stress.

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CECIL STOUGHTON

News footage is used to show President Kennedy as a complex man who remained sharp under tremendous stress.

Movie review 3 stars

"Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived," a documentary directed by Koji Masutani. 80 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave., 206-267-5380 or www.nwfilmforum.org).

Appearances: Wilton Fowler, professor emeritus of U.S. diplomatic history at the University of Washington, will introduce the film tonight. Producer Peter Almond will attend screenings Saturday and Sunday.

The controversial process of counterfactual history gets a captivating workout in "Virtual JFK."

This meticulous and wholly engrossing study bears the subtitle, "Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived." The film does not imagine an alternate reality; rather it seeks to project what would have been by examining past behavior.

The thesis sounds as dry and dreary as high-school social studies, but "Virtual JFK" is surprisingly dramatic without being overly manipulative. Historian James G. Blight (also one of the producers) acts as an academic escort through six instances of crisis in which JFK avoided war. Judging his determination through the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the construction of the Berlin Wall and early interventions in Southeast Asia, the inference is that our involvement in Vietnam would have been substantially different had Lyndon B. Johnson not become commander in chief the way he did.

The bulk of the film is constructed with carefully chosen clips from Kennedy's news conferences and archival footage that provides context for each incident. Augmented with gripping audio clips and unexpurgated minutes from Situation Room meetings, there emerges the complex image of a clever, sophisticated, disciplined man whose mind remains keen under enormous stress.

The character study and narrative elements are particularly engaging as they resonate to present-day events. The film obliquely prompts us to consider decisions made by the sitting president and the virtual history we would be living if certain choices had not been made. Given the parallels in persona linking JFK and Barack Obama, there's a teasing implication that crises awaiting the next president will be ripe for similar counterfactual review.

Director Koji Masutani uses a tense musical score, dexterous editing and a precise selection of actual fact to assert the counterfactual idea that Kennedy would not have chosen to go to war in Vietnam.

The case is persuasive, but there's a good deal of partiality in the skillful technique. Whether or not this virtual argument holds any weight, it's a dynamic exercise that makes historical fact relevant and alive.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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