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Alum's film at Cable Car imagines a world with JFK

Before his assassination in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was planning to withdraw 16,000 U.S. troops from Vietnam as the first step toward pulling out completely.

And yet by 1968 there were 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam and 20,000 U.S. soldiers had been killed. The United States did not pull out of Vietnam until 1975.

A new documentary, "Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived," directed by Koji Masutani '05, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute, examines what Kennedy's policy decisions might have been had he not been assassinated.

The film opens tonight at the Cable Car Cinema and runs through Thursday.

Masutani explained that, for historians, assessing the "what if" question is often a tantalizing yet problematic undertaking. He tried to avoid pure guesswork in "Virtual JFK" by looking "at a pattern of behavior." The film analyzes Kennedy's responses to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the construction of the Berlin Wall and other political conflicts through the examination of press conferences, speeches and memos in order to speculate how Kennedy might have proceeded in Vietnam.

"If it were a betting game, you'd say, like, if six times he de-escalates the situation, what would you guess he'd do in the seventh situation?" Masutani explained, adding that there was a fine line between a piece of fiction and a scholarly project.

Despite being an international relations concentrator at Brown, Masutani always had his sights set on filmmaking. He jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the film version of a book that Professor of International Studies Jim Blight and Watson Institute Communications Manager Karen Lynch were working on - studying the policy differences between Kennedy and Johnson.

"The methodology in the film is different from their approach in the book because it's hard to see what someone's intentions are through paper alone," Masutani said. "I tried to pay attention to what he does, not what he says. Politicians will say anything."

Masutani stressed that transcripts or books can not capture Kennedy's wit, charm and ease - especially when dealing with reporters.

"Kennedy used to have a press conference every three weeks with three to four hundred people," said Masutani, who said he watched countless hours of press conference footage in making the film. "It's very alien to our generation because he's so articulate and shows he has a firm grasp of foreign affairs."

Masutani is quick to point out that this film has obvious parallels and relevance to today's political situation.

"We didn't want to date it by mentioning the Iraq war," he said. "But we are making a film about a president, his decisions about war and his commitment to engage in diplomacy. And today we have a president who has decided to engage in two wars. The connection in my mind is that here is an example of what is not happening today."

Despite little experience with filmmaking, Masutani has spent the last three years working mostly alone in creating the documentary and now is responsible for promoting it, which he said is both rewarding and isolating.

"I spend all my time watching and editing footage. I've become socially inept," he joked, adding that it has been nice to stay in Providence after graduating, but for the most part "Providence is great for college and married people."

Masutani and Blight will lead a talkback after tonight's screening. In the coming months, Masutani, Blight and Lynch will begin work on a teachers' guide for the film and movie.


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