Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Friday, January 21, 2011

History cinema geekery: JFK makes the other guy blink

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. The day of his "ask not what your country can do for you" speech. Which explains the mysterious ghost of JFK appearing on the Google home page yesterday. Surrounded by idealistic words and whatnot.

I've been in a movie kind of mood all week, wandering through clips on YouTube, thinking about films I've seen and have yet to see. Pondering how the pop culture ether has shaped my thinking about pretty much everything for my whole life. As important as science and empiricism and academic inquiry are, there's something to be said for stories and art in the way we humans understand our place in the universe.

JFK has always been a great source of stories, both real and fictionalized. Most polls of Americans rate him among our greatest presidents. Because most people remember only the facile image of the vigorous young leader, appearing to be bold and decisive as he delivered his inspiring rhetoric for the cameras. Then pitching forward in an open limousine in Dallas, before a bullet blew his skull and brain to bits. Camelot lost, the king cut down in his prime.

But in fact Kennedy was very much a mixed bag as chief executives go. His personal life was a disaster that almost certainly compromised his ability to serve as president. Fucking the mistresses of mafia dons will do that. So will letting a quack doctor pump you full of amphetamines to heighten thrill-seeking, risk-addictive behavior. Then there are the highly questionable policies. A vast, across the board military buildup that was totally unnecessary. A fixation on the clownish commie dictator in Havana. Reinforcing the stupid and murderous American military expedition in Vietnam.

On the other hand, there are the moments in which this cynical, profane, reckless man showed hints of genuine humanity and greatness -- or seemed to do so. Such glimpses depend greatly upon the eye of the beholder. It's far too easy to take a fleeting moment and inflate it into myth. Myths aren't necessarily bad. They are stories, upon which we story-telling human animals rely to construct the meaning of our existence.

Kennedy's occasional flashes of seeming brilliance enable myth-building and story telling. How "real" the myths and stories are is open to question.

One story goes like this. He set the United States on course to land human beings on another planetary body. Which they did. This alone ranks as possibly the single most astounding achievement in the 200,000 year history of our species. The only greater success would be that of the first humans to explore beyond Africa long ago, a venture that led our race to colonize the far corners of the Earth.

JFK on the need for space exploration, September 12, 1962

Other stories are told. After initial indifference, Kennedy moved slowly but surely toward putting the national government on the side of civil rights for African Americans. He changed the lives of people around the world by creating the peace corps. Some of the medical students I work with served in that organization, gaining insight and wisdom they might not otherwise have found.

And Kennedy decided against going to war with the Soviet Union over Cuba in October 1962. His performance in that crisis may not have been the cool, masterfully orchestrated manipulation of events described by his great hagiographers, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen. But it was good enough. His choices allowed me and a lot of other people to be born in the years that followed. Kennedy created the current historical time line of the universe we know, in which the United States did not, as planned, launch massive air strikes against Soviet forces in Cuba on the morning of Monday, October 29, 1962. Throughout the crisis, many of his advisers pushed Kennedy hard to forget about blockades and back-channel negotiations and just get on with bombing the fuck out of the Russians. He didn't.

One of my favorite movies is an idealized, not entirely accurate, still highly watchable retelling of Kennedy's actions in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The movie is Thirteen Days, released a decade ago. If you can't stand Kevin Costner, as many people evidently cannot, you will not be able to watch this movie. Costner plays Kenneth O'Donnell, a member of JFK's "Irish mafia" White House inner circle. I kind of like him, actually. Despite the typically bad Costner rendition of an exotic accent.

Bruce Greenwood as JFK does an amazing job blending elements of the president's popular image and actual personality. Cool, sardonic, cautious. The thrill-addict, horn-dog part of JFK's personality is conveniently left out. It's still a magnetic portrayal in an entertaining film. With little touches that make Greenwood's Kennedy feel real. Example: JFK leans forward to make a point and momentarily shudders from a spasm in his back. Greenwood's face and body language, in that flash of time, betray bodily torment kept constantly repressed by sheer will. The real Kennedy, thanks to war injuries and a variety of ailments, endured agonizing physical pain for every moment of his adult life.

Below is a clip from the film. It depicts the first high-seas showdown between the American and Soviet navies, on the morning of October 24, 1962. While my graduate degree in history hasn't made me rich, it does yield a geeky sort of thrill at seeing historical figures on film that most people have never heard of. Dean Rusk, Maxwell Taylor, Robert McNamara, John McCone, Adlai Stevenson, McGeorge Bundy. When I was in grad school, some of them were still alive.

In stories, a President can save the world. It's not like that today. But I like to think there's some wisdom to be found even so, in the stories of how people once made fateful choices, great and small.

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