This Week's Show •

Documenting Democracy: Fred Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’

What Fred Wiseman found in Boston City Hall is not what he was looking for.  The master of documentary film is famous for his almost innocent camera eye that unlocks visual drama in big institutions ...

What Fred Wiseman found in Boston City Hall is not what he was looking for.  The master of documentary film is famous for his almost innocent camera eye that unlocks visual drama in big institutions — the New York Public Library, the Paris Opera, or in his early days: Bridgewater State Mental Hospital in 1960s Massachusetts. So why not finally get inside the modern brick and concrete fortress of official life in his hometown, and see what’s going on in the faces, the meeting rooms, the tone of voice in local affairs.  What he found was simpler than all that.  It was the un-Trump in the un-Washington. An almost astonishing civility, good humor, what looks like good faith in the hundreds of negotiations every day that keep a community going, and growing.

Fred Wiseman shot his film “City Hall” in Boston toward the end of 2018—before COVID, before the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, before the vote that elected Joe Biden president.  It was 10 weeks in the shooting in the nooks and crannies of city services. Then it was 10 months in the alchemy of editing and shaping what the legendary Wiseman eye has seen. It is now a four-and-a-half hour movie — between limited release in theaters and national exposure on public television.  And already it is a field day for reviewers far and wide: an artist’s impression of local politics and public conversation that seem to have turned upside down and are not settled yet.  To my eye and ear, Fred Wiseman’s “City Hall” feels like a classic that dates itself before the flood, so to speak, but is not at all frozen in time.

This hour, we’re in conversation with Fred Wiseman, speaking to us from Paris, where he distilled hundreds of hours of film into a movie. Lydia Edwards, city councilor from East Boston, also joins us.

Featured image by Adrien Toubiana, courtesy of Zipporah Films. The full Open Source panel event at City Hall, excerpted in this hour, can be found here. Our 2018 conversation with Fred Wiseman can be found at this link.

January 7, 2016

Our Postmodern Myth: “Star Wars” is Back

There’s a big old *spoiler alert* hanging over this whole radio show. You’ve been warned! We’re beginning 2016 by confronting what is already its biggest cultural phenomenon. The Force Awakens, the latest installment of Star Wars, on ...

There’s a big old *spoiler alert* hanging over this whole radio show. You’ve been warned!

We’re beginning 2016 by confronting what is already its biggest cultural phenomenon. The Force Awakens, the latest installment of Star Wars, on track to make $3 billion and more around the world.

What does it mean that this particular, high-capital story survives as a global dream? And maybe the most familiar alternate universe ever created outside a world religion: a Greek pantheon for the modern day?

Star Wars is full of paradoxes: it’s profoundly flat; imperial filmmaking in celebration of rebels and saboteurs; a forty-year-old hit that remains forever young. The essayist Chuck Klosterman proposes to nationalize Star Wars, turning the franchise into a lucrative public works project for the nation’s out-of-work actors, set dressers, and engineers. (It’s “the only thing America does that everybody likes.”) And our guest Amanda Palmer tells us it was a geek movie that never seemed that geeky, as well as a violent movie that never seemed that violent. In the end, George Lucas‘s creation must have approval numbers that popes and politicians could only dream of.

Why does Star Wars still mean so much to so many? With a group of our favorite people, we’re counting the ways (with special thanks to Eric Molinsky, host and producer of Imaginary Worlds, who did a five-part series on the cultural significance on the franchise — listen here):   

It’s a postmodern myth.

There’s a moment in the original Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, looks out at the horizon as dusty Tatooine’s two suns set.

There are no words, but John Williams’s score is working overtime, sounding the note of potential energy: a young person with gifts and a great destiny who’s still just wishing he were anywhere but here. Almost anyone can imagine himself standing on that bluff and watching the sun(s) go down.

Watch that scene (you have permission to find it corny!) But it’s also got the mystery of Star Wars’s eternal appeal packed into just 36 seconds: another orchestrated, saturated, uncanny image for all time, conjuring not just before — Achilles, Lancelot, and Dante — but after: Spider-Man, the X-Men, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and most recently, Rey, the Skywalker stand-in for the latest film.

It’s (almost) a silent film.

Speaking of which, George Lucas always put a lot of stock in the power of Star Wars‘s score and images to get along on their own. So in 1977, he anticipated the globalizing trend that’d hit Hollywood decades later — a move away from repartee and puns and into a world of spectacle and SFX. Watch Star Wars work like a silent film in the famous throne-room finale, in the last scene of the new movie, and in that “I am your father” confrontation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOjzLggAKis

It’s a theology for the post-religious — and a political shorthand.

Yes, there are thousands of people all over the world to check “Jedi Knight” on census forms just to scramble the religious picture of the 21st century. And “The Dark Side” has become a shorthand in politics to be embraced by Dick Cheney and shunned by Larry Lucchino, the outgoing Red Sox president who once labeled the Yankees “The Evil Empire.”

But there’s something a little deeper and more peculiar in the vague cosmology of “The Force” put forward in the movies: a balance between emotional attachments and inner peace, between individualism and teamwork, between self-interest and philanthropy, that speaks to the unique spiritual drift of the 20th-century consumer.

It’s a product of the depressed ‘70s — but it still works the same way.

Alan Andres reminds us that those first movies opened during American doldrum days, with bad news everywhere in the ether: the Fall of Saigon, Watergate, the fall of Skylab, the Church Committee, Chappaquiddick, and the Iran hostage crisis. The tone of sci-fi was suitably dark: Soylent Green is people! We were a rebel nation that had come to seem like an evil empire (until Reagan came along and declared that the Soviets were the real imperial enemy).

It may be true that, more than anything, George Lucas wanted to offer a generation of young Americans a different, optimistic story with a batch of good role models in tow. But still he had The Emperor — the bad guy of all Star Wars bad guys — sit in an oval-shaped throne room: Nixon, determined to crush the latest guerrilla uprising.

It’s militaristic.

Somehow, underneath the swashbuckling escapes and screwball dialogue, people forget that in Star Wars, the viewer really can’t root for anyone who doesn’t commit mass murder.

The Empire blows up Alderaan with a weapon known as the Death Star in order to quash organized resistance. But then the heroic Rebels blow up the planet-sized Death Star — along with, it is estimated (!), 843,342 souls in the crew and staff — to stick it to the Empire.

And that’s just a start! Tell us what Star Wars means to you (and may the Force be with you all in 2016)!

This Week's Show •

The Selma Moment

This week we’re taking the measure of the mystery known as LBJ at the Selma moment: not the cinema bully caught dragging his heels in movie theaters this month in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, but the real bully who brought ...

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This week we’re taking the measure of the mystery known as LBJ at the Selma moment: not the cinema bully caught dragging his heels in movie theaters this month in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, but the real bully who brought us both the Voting Rights Bill and the disastrous war in Vietnam.

We want to look at the big historical picture — and a strange coincidence. On March 7, 1965, black Southerners, organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, began a rolling series of marches to provoke an outrage and to raise the profile of the drive to vote.

Just a day later, on March 8, the first battalion of Marines landed at Da Nang, quietly announcing the beginning in earnest of the Vietnam war.

King, who had built a relationship with Johnson over the common cause of civil rights, once apologized to the President for seeming to recommend an American withdrawal in the press. But by 1967 King had grown revolted by the war. At the podium he began to offer a deep and stinging critique of war and of modern America itself. Johnson was furious.

It’s been 50 years since Johnson passed the pieces of legislation that would remake American society, 50 years since he started a war that would claim millions of Vietnamese lives. So it’s not just modern-day moviegoers and African-Americans — we’re all figuring out the legacy of the imperial, irascible Johnson, at home and abroad.

April 3, 2014

Iraq: What’s Known, What’s Unknown, What We Don’t Want to Know

The best question about the Iraq war perhaps isn't for the architects, but for us: what does it say about our system, our media, our country, and our age that we haven't held anyone responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq apart from Chelsea Manning and a few enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib? Isn't there a lesson for us in the life and times of Donald Rumsfeld?
Stephen Kinzer on the Dulles Brothers
Lawrence Wilkerson: Why Does Rumsfeld Always Win?
Phil Klay: Redeployment
Rumsfeld, Snowflake by Snowflake

TheUnknownKnown

Guest List

Mark Danner, supreme chronicler of the wars and of America’s military misadventures for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books.

Stephen Kinzer, reporter, academic, and author, most recently of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a first-rate thinker on war and foreign policy.

Errol Morris’s movie The Unknown Known is the provocation this week: cinema sequel to the Oscar winning documentary on Robert McNamara and Vietnam, “The Fog of War.”  The Rumsfeld questions implied by Morris but unanswered in the movie begin with who Rumsfeld was, and what he was up to; how has the experience of a trillion-dollar catastrophe sailed past any apparent reflection or rethinking on the part of the Iraq War’s architect. The journalist Mark Danner, who covered the war and is now covering the aftermath, says the inconvenient truth here is that the public doesn’t want to reconsider it either, because we’re all implicated in the shame. 

Rumsfeld spent 33 hours talking into Errol Morris’s camera — an exercise in cheerful deflection, denial and a good deal of distortion of the checkable record, including his own public memos and comments.  The architects won’t answer them, so the questions come back to us, whether we want them or not. What does it say about our system, our media, our country, and our age that we haven’t held anyone responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq apart from Chelsea Manning and a few enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib? Isn’t there a lesson for us in the life and times of Donald Rumsfeld?

Reading List

• Mark Danner’s three-part series on Rumsfeld for the New York Review of Books, listed here;
• Errol Morris’s  massive four-part series chasing after the philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld for The New York Times — it begins here;
• Lawrence Wilkerson’s interview with us on the subject of Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq;
• The transcript from Bill Moyers’s troubling documentary on how America was sold that war;
• And our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s latest comment on the war, in anticipation of his forthcoming book, The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War.

And check out our extra content this week: an interview with the veteran-writer Phil Klay, a reflection in memos on the making of The Unknown Known, and archive interviews with guests Lawrence Wilkerson and Steve Kinzer.

Podcast • February 13, 2014

Dennis Lehane – Between Dorchester Ave and Sunset Boulevard

Dennis Lehane so rules the neighborhood of Noir (“Nwaaah,” as we say in Boston) that he gets street credit for work he didn’t write, like “The Departed” and “The Town.” But does the author of ...

Dennis Lehane so rules the neighborhood of Noir (“Nwaaah,” as we say in Boston) that he gets street credit for work he didn’t write, like “The Departed” and “The Town.” But does the author of “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and the new Moonlight Mile get credit enough for a body of artistic work now far beyond private-eye or “genre” of any kind — way beyond his gift for Boston-accented dialog?

Our conversation is about the murkier depths of his Gothic novel and movie “Shutter Island,” with Leonardo diCaprio as a U.S. Marshall apparently trapped in a Boston Harbor lock-up for the criminally insane in the 1950s. I think it’s Lehane’s version of the War on Terror. He says it’s more nearly his answer to the Patriot Act, his reliving of the Cold War and the repressions it licensed in America. “All past is prologue,” he remarks. “Noir is without a doubt the ultimate genre of ‘you cannot outrun the past’… That’s ‘Mystic River’: you cannot outrun your nature. You cannot escape the past.” “Shutter Island” in that sense turns out to be Dennis Lehane’s recapitulation of McCarthyism (an American Stalinism): those good old days when the CIA experimented with LSD and other psychotropic drugs on Federal prisoners and other unsuspecting guinea pigs. It was a time, he’s saying, that foreshadowed the suspension of habeas corpus and the tortures of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in the George Bush years.

Dennis Lehane with Chris Lydon at Mother Anna’s restaurant in Boston’s North End.

We are testing a favorite Open Source premise that the most observant anthropologists and historians of our own time may be novelists. In his hometown he is riveted on “how this new Gilded Age is going to fall out. People are being priced out of Charlestown… out of Southie… It’s kind of horrifying… There seem to be only a few people who are worried that we’re selling out the entire country — that everything’s gone; that the America we knew growing up is just vanishing… Isn’t anybody paying attention? There’s no unions left; they destroyed them. They went after the unions and then outsourced everything. So now there’s no jobs left, and they’ve got the people that have lost their jobs, lost their houses, lost everything, believing that the reason they’ve lost it is everything but the real reasons. And everybody just seems to say: fine, as long as I can get this for three bucks a can at Walmart, I’m okay. I think we’re just watching America fiddle as it burns.”

Dennis Lehane is a writer who keeps expanding into new themes and new media, from his original cop stories to historical fiction, The Given Day (“Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser…,” Janet Maslin wrote in the Times), then long-form television in “The Wire,” and back to social realism and the adventures of PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro in Moonlight Mile. He’s been well served along the way by three tough self-inflicted rules. First, take no job that could divert him from his writing ambition; so he’s been a security guard and he’s parked cars, but was never tempted by law school or teaching. Second, sell the work to artists, never to corporations; so he finally yielded the movie rights to “Mystic River” to Clint Eastwood; and “Shutter Island” to Martin Scorsese. And third: undertake only those new projects that “on some level scare the hell out of me. It’s got to be something I’m afraid I can’t do.”

Podcast • April 12, 2011

Thomas Balmès: An Education in Images

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Thomas Balmès (12 minutes, 6 mb mp3) Director Thomas Balmès on location in Mongolia filming “Babies” [Focus Features photo] Thomas Balmès, the French film documentarian, had a worldwide ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Thomas Balmès (12 minutes, 6 mb mp3)

Director Thomas Balmès on location in Mongolia filming “Babies” [Focus Features photo]

Thomas Balmès, the French film documentarian, had a worldwide hit last year with Babies. The movie was all pictures, no dialog. No text, no voice-over. No argument, no “cause.” Just irresistibly patient long shots of newborns and their parents in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and San Francisco, provoking wry comparisons and conversations (speak for yourselves) but mostly questions.

Is this the man to tune up — maybe redesign — the education of kids, and college kids, who already learn more from images and screens than they do from sentences and books? Thomas Balmès is saying that an education system that neglects to teach its students to participate in making the images they so readily consume is collapsing all around us, not least at Brown, where he was Artist-in-Residence last week. Academics (like his father, a Lacan scholar) write impenetrable texts for a closed circle of friends and rivals; students lean on screens, even in class, and learn by images without acknowledging their adopted language. The students who hovered with him all week arrive typically with ambitious and original film projects to save the world but very little idea, he said, of the how — or of craft, form and story-telling. Among the 10 “rules” that Thomas Balmes has adapted from the great Victor Kossakovsky, one suggests that while it would be nice to save the world, better perhaps for a filmmaker on a project to think of saving herself. It is part of academia’s duty, in Balmes’ view, to create at least a part of its product in today’s vernacular, a language defined overwhelmingly by images.

Today there was a survey published saying an average American child watches on average 7.5 hours of images per day — on phones, iPads, computers, TV. This is insane: to have so little concern about images in places like this to me is criminal. You need to participate in the making of these images, to be thinking about images and not learning how to communicate only through writing. It’s time that academics really taking this seriously. This is crucial. …

Students should participate in the creation of images, and not give it up to Murdoch, and others. You have people here in academia who are working in a kind of closed circle and not caring about what is going on outside. People do read, but writing cannot be the only mode of creation in the academic world. Academics must take and grasp, very rapidly, moving images, and participate in the production of these images… In France every child before 18 spends one year studying philosophy. You don’t become a philosopher, but you study. This is crucial. Reading images, understanding images, semantics, semiotics, whatever, is absolutely crucial and must be implemented at every age in the school system…

Thomas Balmès with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 8, 2011.

Podcast • April 2, 2010

Ted Bogosian: Confessions of a Truth Hound

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ted Bogosian. (28 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Ted Bogosian is one of those uncommon journalists and filmmakers for whom the stark truth of the matter is all that ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ted Bogosian. (28 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Ted Bogosian is one of those uncommon journalists and filmmakers for whom the stark truth of the matter is all that counts. Truth at the far pole from truthiness. Emotional truth. Historical truth. Negotiable truth, which is to say: politically useful truth. Truth so awful sometimes that most of us — whether victims, perps or bystanders — would just as soon turn away.

In James Der Derian’s “global media” class at Brown, Ted Bogosian is speaking about the PBS documentary that made him famous in 1988: An Armenian Journey was the first, and almost the last, network television treatment in America of the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915. We’re talking as well about the the suddenly hot pursuit of pedophile priests in the Catholic church. Also about Errol Morris’s “feel-bad masterpiece,” the almost unwatched S.O.P., a film search through interviews and reenactments for the truth of Abu Ghraib. And about Kathryn Bigelow’s best-picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, yet another box-office bomb about the American war in Iraq.

TB: Being Armenian requires a different standard of truth telling. What’s in your DNA is this business of overcoming denial… The first thing in my life I remember is standing in my backyard in New Jersey, watching my grandmother, who was a survivor of the genocide, making a pile of rocks and telling me, in her broken English, that “nothing mattered.” And for her to be saying that to a 3-year-old boy, based on what she had witnessed, started my journey toward making that film 30 years later, which was about all the apocryphal stories and all the real stories I had heard growing up. I had to decide for myself which ones were true. And when I did, I had to figure out a way to relate those truths to the world. So I think it’s different for Armenians and for other ethnic groups trying to overcome similar denials.

CL: In other words, truth hounds don’t just happen.

TB: There has to be a powerful momentum, an irresistible force, pushing you in that direction. Otherwise it’s too easy to take the path of least resistance.

Ted Bogosian’s story of his own motivation could be construed as ethnic determinism or something stranger: a rationale for ethnic revenge by journalism. But I think we’re scratching at a subtler puzzle that popped up as a surprise here: what are the journalistic motives that seem to be bred in the bone, or in the family histories that drive a lifetime of the most urgent professional curiosity?

Podcast • April 17, 2009

"Waltz with Bashir": the Art Director’s Cut at War

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with David Polonsky, James Der Derian, Amy Kravitz and Keith Brown about “Waltz with Bashir” (31 minutes, 14 mb mp3) David Polonsky: “Waltz with Bashir” is the Israeli war ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with David Polonsky, James Der Derian, Amy Kravitz and Keith Brown about “Waltz with Bashir” (31 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

David Polonsky:

Waltz with Bashir” is the Israeli war film that broke through to everything but an Oscar. It’s the “documentary cartoon” that uses the visual language of comic books to pry open the grotesque sealed memory of war.

Even as Israeli Defense Forces were smashing Gaza last December, the movie got high marks in Israel and around the world for resurfacing IDF complicity in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla camps in the “despised” war in Lebanon back in 1982.

Waltz with Bashir” recapitulates one soldier’s nightmares of the long-ago war to implant fresh nightmares in the audience. It’s an experiment with animation, of all things, to break the spell of war-without-end.

With the art director of “Waltz with Bashir,” David Polonsky, visiting Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, we’re talking about animation as a guess, a stab at simulation, of how memory works; and about story-telling as an “intervention” against the chronic continuity of official violence.

James Der Derian of the Brown faculty is the author of Virtuous War in which he extends the “military industrial” complex to include its partners in media and entertainment. He leads the conversation here in praise of animation as an artistic link between reality and the subconscious.

On the one hand, the defamiliarization of animation allows you initially to take some distance from the story. But at some point (I think it has to do with the way that the brain visually assimilates information) the filter or the rational distancing fell by the wayside. I felt like it was almost directly accessing a part of the brain, because after all, the brain, through evolution, processes visual images first in a primal way and then the images go up to the language center, which is actually a much smaller part of our brain.

Watching “Waltz With Bashir,” you almost got into some primal, visual — I am going to call it — the truth center. So I found the film much more disturbing and harder to understand in a kind of removed, intellectual way, than if it had been a straight frame that I am more familiar with, which is documentary film or Hollywood war blockbusters. I think that is why it came back into our nightmares.

We all know what Marx said about the unconsciousness of the past: that it weighs on us like a nightmare. That somehow triggered all kinds of past memories about war in my own family history. So I think it was remarkable how the film was able to achieve that kind of new channeling of a part of the brain that is not normally a part of film watching, film spectating. 

James Der Derian in Open Source conversation with David Polonsky at the Watson Institute, April 15, 2009.

David Polonsky take his artistic bows gracefully, but he is rueful about the frustration of a larger project here. I’d asked him if he and producer Ari Folman had thought of “Waltz with Bashir” as a sort of “intervention” in a pathological condition.

Yes, of course. Nobody involved in the work was thinking for a moment that this film will stop war in any place. But, yeah, it is expression. It is art. It is the need of the self to express itself. It’s not made to achieve a certain outcome but it is there to say: I’m here and I can’t stand it anymore.

CL: How did you and Ari Folman feel at the time of Gaza, December ’08, not just the massacre but the fact that the war seemed to be hugely popular in Israel?

DP: Deeply depressed. It is very unnerving and it is very hard to remain optimistic. The sense was that we lost the last strongholds of rationality — that everybody’s, well, insane. Again if there is some kind of hope, it is in chaos. It is in the fact that this is not the result of any kind of rational thinking. And when it is not rational it can change in a moment. Because if it doesn’t change in a moment, it was rational, and the end would not come in my lifetime. And I am not prepared for that.

David Polonsky in Open Source conversation with James Der Derian et al. at the Watson Institute, April 15, 2009.

Thanks and thumbs-up to the other guest movie reviewers here: Amy Kravitz of RISD for her wisdom on film animation, and Keith Brown of the Watson Institute for his anthropological eye.

Podcast • February 2, 2009

Obama Channels John F. Kennedy: Brown Bag (III)

Revisionist Cold War historian James Blight — the scholar behind Errol Morris’ “Fog of War” documentary with Robert McNamara — drops a resonant thought I’d never considered: that every day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency ...

Revisionist Cold War historian James Blight — the scholar behind Errol Morris’ “Fog of War” documentary with Robert McNamara — drops a resonant thought I’d never considered: that every day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency was a centennial anniversay of a day in Abraham Lincoln’s term.

And he’s constantly asking Ted Sorenson, his principal adviser, to go to the Library and find out how he can take something from the American Civil War, that horrible scene — 600,000 Americans killed. ‘How can I take that and use that for my purposes now? Because I want to avoid that! There must be something in that for me.’

Professor James Blight of the Watson Institute at Brown in conversation with Chris Lydon for Open Source, January 28, 2009.

The question in this conversation is how President Barack Obama can use the Kennedy record for his purposes, and what JFK might say to BHO if he had the chance. Jim Blight cuts through the personal and romantic connections between the two princely presidents — the two young and inexperienced Senators, so attractively bright and writerly, each with his detached, anthropological eye. The hard point is that Obama like Kennedy inherits a military machine already in high gear, with a momentum driving escalation in Afghanistan entirely analagous to the pressure toward war that Kennedy resisted in Cuba, Berlin and Southeast Asia. What Kennedy would say to Obama would begin with “all war is stupid,” as Kennedy wrote from his PT boat (before it was rammed by Japanese) in 1943. Jim Blight’s guess is that Kennedy would go on:

“Look deeply into what you’re actually deciding — to send a lot of people miserably to their graves. Furthermore, and this is the essence of it for Kennedy, you have no idea what you’re getting into. You have no idea how this could escalate beyond your control. You have no idea how politically unmanageable it’s going to get for you, or how quickly it is going to happen… When somebody comes in and tells you you have no more options other than to send troops into a battle zone: don’t believe it… Find another way out. Take your time.”

James Blight imagining John F. Kennedy’s counsel to President Barack Obama.

Podcast • October 6, 2008

Virtual JFK: Vietnam (and us) if Kennedy had lived

Find a way to see Virtual JFK — a documentary film chasing a what-if riddle — and have your own presidential debate before choosing between John McCain and Barack Obama. The question in Virtual JFK ...

Find a way to see Virtual JFK — a documentary film chasing a what-if riddle — and have your own presidential debate before choosing between John McCain and Barack Obama.

The question in Virtual JFK is whether President Kennedy, had he lived, would have withdrawn from war in Vietnam in 1965. It is at least arguable that what hangs on the answer is nothing less than the fighting (mostly losing) “counter-insurgency” doctrine that has fired up American foreign policy for nearly half a century, and that accounts for the “permanent war” dread through the Bush years and beyond.

Presidents matter, and presidential temperament is decisive: these are the fundamental premises of the film, and the moral for voters this year. Koji Masutani, 27, made Virtual JFK with his Brown University professor of history and international relations, James Blight. Together they have chosen six “crises” from the early Sixties in which restraint prevailed: the Bay of Pigs fiasco in which Kennedy blocked US Marines from saving the misbegotten mission; the flare-up and ceasefire in Laos in Spring, 1961; the Berlin crisis over the Soviets’ wall in August, 1961, when JFK pulled US tanks out of sight; Kennedy’s early rejection in 1961 of his generals’ plea (including his favorite, Max Taylor) for military intervention in Vietnam; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, talked down by a “cautious, skeptical” president; and the secret staff planning in October, 1963 to start drawing down the American advisers in Vietnam.

It is clear to Jim Blight, anyway, that JFK’s instinct and persistent pattern were to avoid the war option, to say “no” to his generals, to engage his own restless, combative mind in peaceful, face-saving alternatives. Kennedy was a multilateralist, a man with a delicately balanced reading of an interconnected world. He did not hesitate to speak of his and our responsibility to “mankind” and “the human race.” He would have welcomed “the global test” of American policies. He spoke of “adversaries,” not “enemies.” He dealt with interests, not “evil.” He said: “I hope I am a responsible president. That is my intention.”

Koji Masutani

What the contrarian viewer sees as well is that JFK was up to his neck, at least, in Cold War reflexes. Those wacko nuclear bomb shelters were “useful… important,” he says in a press conference. Kennedy bought the domino doctrine that the fate of Southeast Asia was all or nothing, and he sold the silly simplistic line that nasty “guerrilas” were disrupting a peaceful democracy in South Vietnam. In his lesser moments Kennedy can sound shockingly close to George W. Bush, needling up fear and hostility around catch-phrases like “the most dangerous time in the history of the human race.” But then, what if it really was?

The seductive beauty of Virtual JFK is watching the play of doubt and responsibility, learning and wit on the weathered face of a 45-year-old war hero who is, unbelievably, the president of the United States.

KM: Imagine sitting in an editing studio in the dark for three years, hours and hours a day, having grown up with parents who are not American… I am listening to Kennedy, a president who is articulate, essentially disarming. I found this very surprising, as if he was an alien. I am just surprised that we have been here before: muddled in a war that can’t fully be explained. In the second part, we get in to Lyndon Johnson, someone who uses the kind of rhetoric that George Bush uses today, in absolutes.

JB:It’s so interesting because Johnson’s tapes are phone tapes and it feels like you’re sitting right there with the man himself. For the first three or four months, the phone tapes with McNamara show that McNamara, in a sense unconsciously still thinks he’s talking to Kennedy because he keeps interrupting him, and that is not something that is done with Johnson. He also keeps bringing data to bear on the situation, and Johnson doesn’t want to hear that either… until about March when…we did a rough calculation: about 50% of McNamara’s interventions after that are “yes, sir.” There is no known instance of a conversation with Kennedy that we have on tape where Kennedy talks and McNamara says “yes, sir.” It’s McNamara talks and Kennedy asks questions and then thinks about it…

KM:Kennedy required competitive information. At every meeting Kennedy wanted to hear from people who disagreed with him, and then under Johnson there was evidence that he wanted a consensus to take place before the meeting occurred…

Koji Masutani and James Blight of Virtual JFK in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 29, 2008

Koji Masutani conceived his movie before the shape of the 2008 race was remotely clear. The movie never mentions Barack Obama, but one feels that Obama has been growing into the Kennedy role. Ted Sorensen, who wrote many of Kennedy’s best lines, isn’t mentioned in the movie either. But Sorensen figures largely in our conversation here:

James G. Blight

So [we asked] Ted [Sorensen, Kennedy’s former speechwriter] what is it about Barack Obama that reminds you of your former friend and boss. He said, “it’s this: his first reaction will be to think, to consider. It will not be to strike out to strike out at the first opportunity, it seems to Ted, and it seems to me, frankly. That doesn’t make him a ditherer, not a person who is incapable of making a decision, but a person who wants to hear as many points of view as are relevant to the situation as possible and then to move forward and to try to do the least harm. Not an ideologue, not going to try to democratize the world and the moon and Mars and everything with it.” The point of leadership, he said, according to Kennedy, was to do as little harm as possible. And he thinks that Obama has kind of internalized that.

James Blight of the Watson Institute at Brown University and Virtual JFK in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 29, 2008