Judge Bill Gibron wasn't anywhere near the grassy knoll, he swears.
On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dealey Plaza in Dallas—three shots that would forever change one country and its people. More so than 9/11, which had every news channel and amateur camera crew capturing history for all time, the Kennedy assassination was clouded in mystery and myth almost from the moment it occurred. Even when the Zapruder film finally showed everyone the sickening scenario, it failed to provide the paralyzing, painful closure the country was looking for.
Indeed, since those bloody images left their mark on the mindset of a populace, there have been people trying to explain and settle the speculation. It is said that more than 70% of the American people believe President John F. Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy. They envision a faction of dissatisfied people of power who found the perfect patsy in supposed lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. Most of this skepticism came from the oral history—the passing down of theories and theses from those who lived it—to those who wanted to remember and comprehend. But movies have also left their mark on the Kennedy assassination, from the shocking documentary Four Days in November to the black "comedy" Winter Kills. But nothing matches the potency of Oliver Stone's summary of the subject, the masterpiece of modern moviemaking JFK. ABC News and Peter Jennings want to save the world from such seductive examples of cinematic misinformation. In their 2003 Special Report, The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy, the case against Oswald is once again dragged out. Only this time, the network means to shut the book on it once and for all.
The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy is the diametrically opposed yin to Oliver Stone's riveting, relentless JFK yang. An attempt to settle the "single gunman" theory once and for all, Peter Jennings and his cast of historical participants and pundits drive home the pro-Warren Commission point with honesty, integrity, and just a little of old Ollie's speculative showboating. Indeed, there is a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking in this 89-minute extrapolation: attempts to create a concrete psychology to give Lee Harvey Oswald the right insane assassin's profile; interviews with those surrounding the long-deceased key players to cast their own versions and aspersions; and enough conspiracy discrediting to throw a wrench into that entire cottage industry.
Perhaps the most damaging evidence to those ideological individuals who roam Dealey Plaza on a regular basis, selling pamphlets and personal propaganda, is the 3D computer simulation/reenactment by animator Dale Myers. It provides the one element that has always been missing from most discussions of the Kennedy case, Abraham Zapruder's home movie notwithstanding: visual proof. Using original elements, Abe's infamous "film," and the ability to explore alternative angles and different perspectives, the lone assassin becomes a far more feasible explanation. The so-called "magic bullet" is explained away using this technological vantage point (though it's not the first time for such a debunking—Walter Cronkite hosted a similar showcase in the mid-'90s). Similar in tone and temperament to Gerald Posner's 1994 book on the assassination, Case Closed (Posner is also one of the onscreen scholars), Beyond Conspiracy hopes to put this tragic piece of America's past to rest in a direct, definitive fashion.
As an introduction to the entire concept of the conspiracy to kill the President, and an investigative report into the validity of the Warren Commission's conclusions, this presentation is top-notch. It's engrossing as well as enlightening, providing new information and support for old theories that really forward its position. But there is also a disturbing direction taken, one obviously not meant to exist. For as much as Peter Jennings and the rest of ABC News want to undermine someone like Oliver Stone's credibility (and they do love to denigrate him), they never once give the man a chance to speak for himself. Nay, none of the famous far-out thinkers who've proselytized about "the grassy knoll" or a "second shooter" are considered anything other than certifiable goofs, and are more or less banned from getting equal time. There is never anything positive said about them (the closest Jennings and crew come is offering that Stone is a gifted artist) and every possible negative characteristic that can be dug up is attributed to them. Someone like New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison may have been a bitter, obsessed avenger of his dead President, but he must have had something going for him (outside of the lunatic fringe portrait painted by this show) to serve in such a high-profile position for so long. Even Oswald loses any acknowledgeable empathy on the basis of a lot of assertions (with nary a fact to back them up) concerning his desire for personal celebrity at the cost of a high-profile life. His assassination attempt on General Edwin Walker is far more telling than brothers and "biographers" playing backseat psychoanalysis to this infamous, indecipherable individual. Yet time and again individuals are allowed to have their head fill the frame and declare certain conclusions as concrete, when at most these ideas can be described as educated conjecture.
The reliance on inference and the lack of true objectivity really undermines the conviction of Beyond Conspiracy, giving it the same sense of didactic delirium as many of the conspiracy theory movies made. Granted, the information here is presented in a far more logical manner, but some of what is being called "definitive" proof has the reek of a reverse plot philosopher—that is, someone readily buying into a series of establishment statements without a single bit of background confirmation. This may be too harsh a criticism of a well-researched, expertly presented and compelling look at one of the darkest mysteries of American history. But the pall of a cabal still rises over the entire enterprise since conspiracy is so readily dismissed without even the merest serious mention. If Stone is a liar, let him come on camera and disprove/confirm it (after all, the House Subcommittee Counsel who forwarded the acoustic "fourth shot" scenario is given ample airtime). Fastidious, eloquent members of this so-called crackpot brigade can actually speak for themselves and not drool at the same time. Would a couple of minutes of airtime really threaten Beyond Conspiracy 's ironclad conclusion? It is easy to disregard that which is barely mentioned (each sketchy conspiracy scheme is given a broad, generic description) and without an equal time ideal, this excellent show turns somewhat suspect. True, the journalists here may feel that the media in general is too JFK, Stonesque and sensationalistic about the assassination. But to ignore that which you are fighting lessens the victory.
The DVD presentation of this broadcast special is by Koch Vision, and the transfer is first-rate. Bright, sharp, and filled with atmosphere and detail, the image almost vibrates with clarity. The shots of Dealey Plaza from 2004 are big-screen movie magical. Soundwise, the Dolby Digital Stereo is also first-rate. Acoustic evidence is discussed and newsreel soundtracks are meshed with current high-tech offerings, yet everything blends nicely into a pleasant, precise aural ambiance. The lack of extras—this is a bare-bones title, barely containing a menu style—is disheartening, but it's also hard to imagine what could have been included. Sure, there is literally tons of print and written testimony, but do we really want step-through galleries of endless words? A commentary seems silly since this is a news report, not a made-for-television movie. And any other contribution would dissuade one from the actual information offered here. Though most fans clamor about "more bang for their buck," the lack of extra content is understandable, if not completely forgivable.
The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy has a lot to say about the nuts and bolts of the case against Oswald. It flashes high-tech tools and makes common sense segues between the obvious and unknown-until-now. It even offers a little JFK-style nostalgia for the mythic fallen leader. But it barely answers the question of why this event still haunts our nation so. Jennings, through the words of historian William Manchester, tries to explain why America cannot accept Oswald as the lone gunman. When you weigh the deaths of six million Jews against the villainous Nazis, he says, the scenarios balance out on the scale of tragedy vs. tyranny. But when Kennedy is placed on the side of right, and Oswald takes his tainted seat as the single factor in the beloved leader's fatality, the scale cannot maintain equilibrium. Oswald is too light, too inconsequential to snuff out something so promising and powerful. The legacy left behind by the events of that day in November has had one lasting impact on this tired, troubled nation. For over 40 years, we have been trying to get the balance right. Beyond Conspiracy hopes to add its own weight to the watershed.
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