Thursday, January 17, 2008

On DVD: Oswald's Ghost

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2008 at 10:17 PM

click to enlarge oswald.jpg

If there is one thing lone-gunman and conspiracy-theory advocates can possibly agree on, it’s that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 is forever embedded in the nation’s subconscious. Call it the end of innocence or the unofficial beginning of the ’60s, but Kennedy’s murder haunts our nation. It preceded the other pivotal assassinations of the decade (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, etc.), as well as the two other most oft-discussed events that undermined the credibility of our government: the Vietnam War and Watergate.

And how fascinating it must be that nearly all of these other events seem to cycle back to the first Kennedy killing. What’s almost as fascinating is how few films speak to this oddly simple yet complex notion. But director Robert Stone almost nails it with his documentary, Oswald's Ghost, which is currently being shown on PBS' "The American Experience" series, but also was released on DVD this week. Not that there haven’t been plenty of films and books about the assassination, most of which focus (understandably) on that most sensational question: whodunit? Don’t look for an answer to that question from Stone (no relation to JFK director Oliver Stone), who seems more enthralled with the legacy of Kennedy’s death than with its plotting.

One could argue that these two issues are also inextricably related, but going down the conspiracy road as the focus of a story feels wearying even as I write this. What Robert Stone (Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst) performs so deftly is an examination of the examination, so to speak, laying out the various theories while successfully rising above them.

To Stone, the most interesting question is the first one quoted in the film: “How could someone as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald have killed someone as consequential as John F. Kennedy?” It made no sense at the time, and for some still doesn’t, until you start thinking about what would motivate most small people in this world to become bigger.

But what is more gnawing, particularly to people who were inspired by Kennedy, was how his life and death played at the psyche of their idealism. “We thought that we could change the world,” says Tom Hayden, the ’60s radical who later became a U.S. congressman from California. “That is the key thing that ended for me, certainly with the murder of Kennedy.” Or, as Gary Hart, the former U.S. senator who was the first non-Kennedy to be called a “Kennedyesque” presidential candidate: “He almost single-handedly transformed the image of the politician.”

Of course, New Orleans is a featured character in the assassination, both because Oswald was born and raised (initially) in the city and because of Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison’s ill-fated prosecution of businessman Clay Shaw to substantiate Garrison’s own conspiracy theory. It was Garrison’s crusade that was at the heart of Oliver Stone’s film, and in an archival interview Oliver Stone emphasizes his desire to present a kaleidoscope of theories (shot through the prism of the Garrison case) for the viewers to challenge their presumptions. JFK offers Garrison as more of a sacrificial lamb (at least in the public eye) than he may be claiming, but in Robert Stone’s film Garrison is positioned as a conspiracy nut more than a righteous crusader. His use of unreliable witnesses, a rather convoluted system connecting the New Orleans principles with Oswald assassin Jack Ruby, and what apparently became a paranoid attitude toward his critics ruined Garrison’s credibility.

“I think Garrison had lost touch with reality,” says author Edward Jay Epstein, who has written several books about the assassination.

If there’s one frustration with Robert Stone’s film, it’s the nagging sensation that his focus feels almost too narrow. After all, despite the aforementioned commitment to discussing the impact of the assassination, the conspiracy theories can’t help but dominate the 90 minutes. The good news is this offers one last look at the late Norman Mailer, who died in December, after the film’s completion. With a rare, grand self-effacement, Mailer admits to being one of the bigger conspiracy theorists, and one of the most famous former conspiracy theorists. (“It was an incredible morass of possibility,” he conceded about the various theories.) But when the focus shifts to people like Hayden or Hart, the impact lessens; it’s almost like it loses in the competition with the conspiracy obsession, however wearying, for the reader’s rapt attention. And where’s Vincent Bugliosi, who wins the crown for the flat-out largest assassination book ever — last year’s 1,632-page Reclaiming History — which supports the lone-gunman claim? (Maybe Bugliosi was still editing that monster at the time of the film’s production.)

Regardless, Oswald's Ghost proves once again that the specter of Kennedy’s death — no matter how hard we try to run away from it — keeps catching up. That’s one magic bullet.

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