Despite its hyperbolic title and theatrical release timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its subject’s assassination, JFK: A President Betrayed doesn’t traffic in Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theories. Rather, Cory Taylor‘s documentary is a sober-minded, well-researched account of Kennedy’s efforts to defy the urgent warmongering advice of his military leaders and instead pursue back-channel communications with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro to secure peace. Making its arguments in a clear and cogent fashion, the film serves as an effective historical primer, even if it’s inevitably going to get lost amid the current flood of JFK-themed docs clogging the airwaves.
The film contains no startling revelations, but its mixture of archival film and photographs, excerpts from previously classified documents, and talking heads presents a compelling case. It particularly benefits from the latter, as they include not only the usual historians and writers, but also many figures who were directly involved in or had close proximity to the events in question. They include Sergei Khrushchev, who edited his father Nikita’s memoirs; James Galbraith, whose father, John Kenneth Galbraith, was a Kennedy adviser; such former Kennedy aides as Dan Fenn and Tazewell T. Shepard Jr. (the latter since deceased); Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s translators during their famous Vienna summit meeting; and the daughters of author Norman Cousins, who was recruited by Kennedy to carry secret messages to the Soviet leader in 1962 and 1963.
Among the film’s more dramatic sections is a gripping account of a secret meeting held in 1961 in which Kennedy’s military advisors laid out a plan for a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, the details of which only became known some 30 years later. Also engrossing are the fly-on-the-wall accounts of the Vienna summit in which Kennedy found himself virtually bullied by the overbearing Khrushchev. Among the more startling assertions expressed is that the building of the Berlin Wall actually helped ease tensions between the two superpowers, with Kennedy making the tactical decision not to make a stand opposing it. This led adviser Dean Acheson, famous for his hawkishness, to say this to his colleagues behind Kennedy’s back: “Gentlemen, you might as well face it. This nation is without leadership.”
Although it delves deeply into such events as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film only briefly touches on his supposed desire to get American military advisers out of Vietnam, presenting as evidence communications to that effect directed to the State Department’s Averell Harriman. Most hauntingly, we learn of a conciliatory message sent by Kennedy to Fidel Castro that was delivered on Nov. 22, 1963.
While many of its assertions will no doubt continued to be debated by historians for generations to come, JFK: A President Betrayed nonetheless represents an excellent example of cinematic scholarship. It’s made even more convincing by the authoritative tone of narrator Morgan Freeman.
Opens Nov. 22 (Agora Productions)
Director-screenwriter-editor: Cory Taylor
Producers: Darin Nellis, Nicole Corbin, Michael Gittelson, Arnie Gittelson
Executive producers: Darin Nellis, Cory Taylor
Directors of photography: Richard Chisolm, David Linstrom, Cory Taylor
Composer: James T. Sale
Narrator: Morgan Freeman
Not rated, 91 min