With a flood of Kennedy material coming out to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that surreal day in Dallas, brace yourself for plenty of resurgent conspiracy theories concerning who and what was behind JFK's assassination. Despite its come-on title, JFK: A President Betrayed, a new documentary playing on DirecTV and opening in Denver theaters this week, isn't really yet another investigation of his death. But it is a fascinating look at some of the lesser-known intrigues and conflicts between Kennedy and some of his top advisors -- and it also has a connection to Columbine.
Drawing on archival footage, recently declassified documents and interviews with some surviving New Frontier denizens (and the sons of John Kennedy Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger), the film is narrated by the omnipresent Morgan Freeman -- the voice of God, by documentary standards -- and has some local ties. Producer Nicole Corbin was involved in the Columbine documentary 13 Families, and executive producer Darin Nellis is a Colorado native. The result is an insidery look at many of Kennedy's toughest foreign policy crises, putting some familiar episodes in a new light.
One thing's for sure: the Kennedy White House was no Camelot, even in its early days. Kennedy inherited a State Department riddled with Eisenhower cold warriors, an erratic and volatile adversary in Khrushchev, a worsening situation in Berlin and a goofy plan to invade Cuba. The film presents Kennedy as a thoughtful, bold and uncynical leader who was frequently undermined by his most hawkish advisors. Air Force General Curtis LeMay pushed for a first strike against the commies; CIA director Allen Dulles misled Kennedy about key aspects of the Bay of Pigs invasion, hopeful that the situation would compel the reluctant president to order full-scale military intervention in Cuba.
Kennedy fired Dulles, brushed off the Strangeloves in the Pentagon, and told Khrushchev he wasn't afraid to negotiate. For his thanks, he was ridiculed as soft by the Soviet leader and mocked in private by his own men. Or, as Dean Acheson put it, "Gentlemen, you might as well face it -- this nation is without leadership."
Most historians agree that the first two years of Kennedy's presidency brought us closer to nuclear war than we've ever been since. Yet director Cory Taylor's film portrays JFK as a canny peacenik, opening up back channels to Khrushchev, seeking to deescalate the growing quagmire in Vietnam, using the cooling-off period after the missile crisis to push forward what may have been the most significant accomplishment of his foreshortened presidency, a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere.
Did all these overtures of peace prompt hard-liners to plot his assassination? The film never really asks that question; the ending is an abrupt hitting of the brakes, rather than a descent into Oliver Stone territory. But there are ample reminders here of how internal power struggles and agendas can warp policy, and the unique leader we lost on a November day fifty years ago.
JFK: A President Betrayed plays at the Elvis Cinemas in Littleton, 6014 South Kipling Parkway, November 15-21. For showtimes, call 303-948-5555; check out the trailer below.
More from our Television & Film archive: "Sam Mandez: Film exposes Colorado's overuse of isolation cells."
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