Judge Brendan Babish found this documentary haunting.
"How could someone as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald have killed someone as consequential as John F. Kennedy?"
Robert Stone's documentary, Oswald's Ghost, is a meditation on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the competing theories behind the assassination, and the nation's collective response to the assassination. As you might imagine, this is a tall order for a film that is less than 90 minutes long. Indeed, as the movie points out, there have been thousands of books written on Kennedy's assassination, and there's probably enough material on the subject so that this film could be expanded into a six, ten, or even twenty-part series without seeming too bloated. As such, much of the substance of Oswald's Ghost is underdeveloped; still, there is much here of interest, especially for those who were neither alive at the time of Kennedy's death, nor overly familiar with its fallout.
First and foremost, be aware that Stone does not so much advocate for a certain position as merely survey the landscape surrounding Kennedy's death. I have seen reviews that claim Oswald's Ghost aims to refute conspiracy theories, but I don't see that. Certainly, the film does cast aspersions on certain theories and their proponents—particularly Jim Garrison, the protagonist of Oliver Stone's movie, JFK. However, Robert Stone allows room for suspicion of the government's account of the assassination, and gives comparable time to intelligent individuals who present hard-to-refute evidence that Oswald did not act alone. For some viewers I am sure the film's lack of a clear objective will be frustrating. It is much easier to engage with a documentary that simply provides evidence for one side of a contentious issue. Though I am not happy to have this niggling doubt over who killed JFK, it is to Stone's credit that he gives both sides a fair hearing.
Another of the immediate strengths of the film is its use of archival footage. Among the highlights are a couple extended clips of Oswald in custody in Dallas, talking to the press, pleading his innocence and ignorance of the charges. As one who has seen countless still images of Oswald, especially that unflattering shot taken moments after getting shot in the gut, it was fascinating to see him, however briefly, speaking, interacting with the press, and actually, as far as I could tell, acting as an innocent man would. Indeed, Norman Mailer—who is just one of several impressive talking heads featured in the film—remarked, Oswald was an intelligent and eloquent man, especially considering his lack of formal education. This comment probably wouldn't have resonated without the accompanying clips of Oswald. In tandem, my impression of the supposed assassin has indelibly altered.
In addition to Mailer, Dan Rather and Anthony Lane provide enlightening commentary on the assassination. Rather—who is also seen in intriguing CBS News footage shortly after Kennedy's death—provides a learned overview of the case, as well as a credibility commensurate with being one of the last old-fashioned investigative journalists. Lane is one of the most prominent proponents of the theory that Oswald did not act alone. In addition to his well-reasoned arguments, he also presents himself very well; his findings should not be dismissed lightly. But then, there are still several others on both sides of the debate who appear in the film, and nearly all of them make cogent points supporting their thesis.
So ultimately I feel better informed after watching Oswald's Ghost. That certainly is a good thing. However, I am now more conflicted than ever on what really happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and how much of the resulting cultural shift was due to those events. While part of me is unhappy with being left with so many unanswered questions, I am grateful for having my curiosity piqued.
As usual, PBS has provided a quality documentary with quality sound and picture performance. However, as is not so often the case, PBS had loaded this DVD with substantive features. The first is "A Visit to Dealey Plaza," in which ardent supporters of the theory that Oswald did not act alone speak-talk their way through what they consider the most damning evidence. There is also "The Zapruder Film and Beyond," a 22-minute piece full of the same talking heads from the film discussing the film of the Kennedy assassination. Lastly, there is an interview with Robert Stone, in which he discusses his impetus in making the film and how he was able to unearth previously unseen footage for the documentary.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• "A Visit to the Dealey Plaza"
Review content copyright © 2008 Brendan Babish; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.