Oswald's Ghost is the rare film whose power increases with distance. As I sat in the historic Texas Theatre last week, where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested on the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and watched a special screening of the documentary, the suggestive rhythm of the editing and the understated urgency of the musical accompaniment lulled me into a false sense of security. I was deceived into thinking that I knew what kind of film it was and so, based on that assumption, I allowed the shaped narrative to lead me down a certain path, only to discover at the end that I had arrived at a very different destination than I expected.
Filmmaker Robert Stone says that he was initially inspired by the furor that erupted after the release of Oliver Stone's JFK in 1991. Why were people so wrapped up emotionally in what had happened so many years before? How had that pivotal event changed the nation? Ten years later, he saw parallels in how the nation responded to 9/11 and started what he calls his own "journey" to discover why America has remained obsessed with the JFK assassination, to the point that he calls it a "theology."
That being said, Stone does not take the approach I had anticipated. After an opening fusillade of opinions issued by experts, he dives right into the events leading up to November 22, 1963, laying them out one by one in distinct, logical order as though he had an organized sheaf of papers he was slapping down on a table. The drama is inherently captivating; no matter how many times you've seen news footage and photographs from the days in question, it still feels like you're dragged against your will into a nightmare.
Stone limits the number of interview subjects, introducing each at the time their own personal interest or involvement began. We start with people that were in Dealey Plaza on November 22, including reporters Hugh Aynesworth (newspaper) and Dan Rather (television). Aynesworth heard a report of another shooting and raced to the scene in time to speak with eyewitnesses to the murder of police officer J. D. Tippitt. He then ran down the block and arrived at the Texas Theatre in time to see Oswald's arrest. Rather talks about the "miasma of confusion and chaos" that raged at Dallas Police headquarters as reporters flooded in.
Watching the proceedings from home on television, attorney Mark Lane says he felt that Oswald's protestations of innocence sounded genuine. Historian Robert Dallek and investigator Josiah Thompson talk about the politically conservative climate in Dallas, which would lead one to believe an attack on Kennedy would be more likely to come from the far right, not the left. Journalist Edward Jay Epstein discusses the evidence and suspicions that Oswald may not have acted alone.
From a distance, student activists Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin wondered how such a perfect storm of evidence and apparently convenient happenstance could result in a crime that might always leave questions unanswered. Future U.S. Senator (and presidential candidate) Gary Hart felt that Kennedy had represented a change in the way that politicians had been viewed, and questioned whether that change had been forever shattered.
Norman Mailer points out that conspiracy theories sprang forth almost immediately. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Warren Commission and wished for a speedy resolution to quiet concerns before the 1964 elections. The rights to the famous Abraham Zapruder home movie footage were quickly purchased by Life magazine, but not before Dan Rather described his view of what the footage showed. Life withheld the footage from broadcast on television, supposedly due to reasons of taste, according to Josiah Thompson. The brief film is still startling today.
The documentary continues in this vein, taking a high overview of the next 40 years and focusing briefly on key events that shaped and sometimes shook popular perceptions and beliefs about the assassination and various conspiracy theories. The narrative thread is thrown out of whack with an odd, lengthy diversion into Jim Garrison territory (Garrison was an attorney general in New Orleans; he was played by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone's JFK), but otherwise it moves relentlessly forward,
As noted above, the film arrives at a conclusion that I did not expect and that does not seem entirely supported by what has been presented. Robert Stone's feeling seems to be: no matter what conclusions you might have reached about the assassination, the conclusion of the majority that a conspiracy was involved has affected the nation in a negative way, forever. Yet the film as a whole barely glances at this idea. For me, it felt like a calm consideration of facts and opinions which suddenly dovetails into another line of reasoning altogether. Indeed, if I hadn't spoken to Stone briefly beforehand and/or read the publicity materials, I would not have been aware of what he hoped to accomplish with the documentary.
That doesn't mean the film lacks substance and value. Really, there's plenty of meat on the bones of Stone's premise, and I admire his desire to move beyond arguments over every tiny detail and examine the long-term impact of the assassination and the conspiracy theories themselves.
As made clear in the post-screening Q&A, Stone has his own strong feelings, yet he expressed himself with a tone of complete respect toward those who had reached different conclusions. It was quite unexpected when an older gentleman in the audience called him "smug." Stone said that was a symptom of the general problem that plagues the world today: resorting to name-calling instead of respecting and trying to understand other viewpoints.
Gary Mack, curator of The Sixth Floor Museum, moderated the Q&A, which included Josiah Thompson and Hugh Aynesworth. Both Thompson and Aynesworth were interviewed extensively in the film, though neither was enamored of the conclusions drawn by Stone -- and said so plainly. For the record, Thompson and Aynesworth don't agree with each other on all points either.
As Stone said in response to a question, it's impossible to cover every salient point in all the theories that have been propounded. I just wish that more of his personal opinions had been expressed in the film. I think it would have bolstered his arguments and added a degree of balance and perspective that is otherwise missing from a very well-made documentary.
The exceptional original score was composed by Gary Lionelli.
Oswald's Ghost opens today in New York. PBS will broadcast it as part of the American Experience series on Monday, January 14, 2008.