Directed and Written by Robert Stone
Produced by Robert Stone/AMERICAN EXPERIENCE/WGBH
in Association with the BBC
Documentary. 90 Minutes. 2007
American Assassin: Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain
Directed and Written by Robert Bayne
Produced by InSight Films/Minsk Channel 8
Documentary. 73 Minutes. 2006
By Max Holland
The 2007-08 season of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE opens with Oswald’s Ghost, a new documentary by filmmaker Robert Stone. It purports to chronicle “America’s forty-year obsession with the pivotal event of a generation,” the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963.
Oswald’s Ghost is not another “whodunit” film about the assassination. Rather, it is billed as close to a “definitive account” of what the assassination did to America. “This is a film,” in the words of writer/producer/director Robert Stone, “about how we absorbed and responded to the trauma and shock of being inexplicably—and repeatedly—robbed of our sense of idealism, optimism, and security.” Put more bluntly perhaps, Oswald’s Ghost is the baby boomers’ penultimate take on the defining mystery (supposedly) of their lives.
There is a level on which Oswald’s Ghost succeeds. Through the recollections of authors such as the late Norman Mailer, Priscilla Johnson McMillan, and others, the documentary vividly recalls to mind the nation’s raw emotions. Mailer evokes the immediate aftermath, when he observes that “The real shock was philosophical, as if God had removed his sanction from America.” Political activists, ranging from Tom Hayden to Todd Gitlin to Gary Hart (which, come to think of it, is not a very broad range) summon the effect of the assassination and its aftermath on the baby boom generation in particular.
After Oswald’s death in police custody, “The impression [was that] somebody organized a conspiracy to wipe out Oswald,” observes Hayden, who would soon become a leader of the so-called “New Left.”And naturally, there is the obligatory bow to Camelot. “The image of politicians up to that time was a kind of stereotypical back-room, arm-twisting, deal-making character,” notes Gary Hart, with more than a hint of emotion. And then, “along came this very attractive, very articulate, 44-year-old . . . war hero . . . intelligent . . . read books . . . so he almost totally [and] single-handedly transformed the image of a politician.” So long as Kennedy was alive, Hayden chimes in, “We thought that we could change the world. This is the key thing that I think ended, for me certainly, with the murder of Kennedy.”
Once disbelief in the official story began to outpoll belief, roughly two years after the 1964 release of the Warren Report, Mailer notes that the official conspiratorial theory became that “Kennedy was killed ’cause he was getting ready to pull out of Vietnam, and that couldn’t be. . . . And like all of those theories it had [a] certain plausibility and a depressing lack of proof.” The 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, of course, were the final blow. The latter’s quest for the presidency embodied the hope that Camelot might yet be restored, and that the American people would be redeemed for their sin of insufficiently appreciating JFK while he was alive. As Tom Hayden, puts it,
The impression [now] is that we’re facing power structures or conspiratorial cliques that apparently will stop at nothing. This became incorporated into a new understanding about how power works in America. . . . We’re not as democratic as we were taught. The model we’re operating on needs to incorporate random events, assassinations, stolen elections. We are not different from other countries.
That realization, in turn, led to the violent clash at the Democratic convention in Chicago, or as Todd Gitlin characterizes it, “the colossal confrontation between the forces of light and forces of darkness” that the Democrats have been trying to overcome ever since.
While Robert Stone takes the narrative all the way up to and past the 1991 blockbuster JFK by Oliver Stone (apparently no relation), the above is sufficient to convey the gist of what Robert Stone is trying to accomplish in Oswald’s Ghost. His aim is to present a meta-narrative about the event that cast a pall for decades over the American psyche and politics, and strains the fundamental bond of trust between the American people and their government to this day.
If the insights Stone presents sound familiar, though, it’s because they are. For a major, amply-funded, and polished documentary four years in the making, it’s oddly devoid of anything we haven’t heard before and long ago. And that points to the problem underlying Stone’s approach.The documentary’s unarticulated premise is that one does not actually need to stake out a position about what exactly happened on November 22 (apart from agreeing that Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas) to present a history of what this watershed event did to America afterwards. One can believe the Warren Commission got it essentially right, or one can believe the panel was plainly incompetent. One can believe the commission was uninterested in getting at the truth, and chiefly an exercise in political pacification; or one can believe the commission was congenitally corrupt, and a heinous accessory after the fact. Ostensibly, it doesn’t matter what one believes because the history of the aftermath remains the same.
Such a notion is fashionable nonsense. Stone’s premise is not a premise at all, but a contemporary conceit. The impact of the assassination cannot be discerned, much less presented, if one cannot tell the difference between the truth-seekers and the poseurs, the truth-tellers and the charlatans, or worse, if one knows the difference but shies away from conveying that distinction. The story of the aftermath depends wholeheartedly on a correct reading of the assassination, which happened only one way, after all, regardless of the number of possible scenarios.
Robert Stone would surely argue otherwise, and the most charitable interpretation of Oswald’s Ghost is that Stone thinks viewers will be able to figure out, perhaps by osmosis, that conspiracy-mongering is a dead and politically-enervating end. But what makes Stone’s artifice indefensible, in the end, is the film’s technique. The documentary is done in a pointillist style. Archival footage is interspersed with the recollections, opinions, and musings of 11 talking heads, most of whom had direct contact with the assassination and/or its aftermath. The bulk of the statements uttered are accurate, but a disturbing number are misrepresentations, half-truths, and outright falsehoods. One waits in vain for a narrator to guide one’s way through this thicket, but a voice of omniscient reason never is heard. The net effect is to put prevaricators and dissemblers on the same plane as the truth-tellers, and accord the former a respectability and authority they do not deserve.