Film Review #132: Oswald’s Ghost
Director: Robert Stone
Cast: Lee Harvey Oswald, Norman Mailer, Oliver Stone
One could see this new documentary, which premiered earlier this month at the 8th Woodstock Film Festival in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City, simply as a stream-lined recapitulation of the John F. Kennedy assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and the persistent controversies surrounding that event – an update arriving at a moment when reappraisal of the 1960s and especially Vietnam is well underway, driven by the competing convictions that Iraq either is or is not like “that” – and useful to a younger audience for establishing a kind of baseline. After all, Robert Stone is the same filmmaker commissioned in 1992 to produce the 22-part permanent multimedia exhibition at Boston’s Kennedy Library, so he certainly comes to this project well enough immersed in Kennedy-as-subject. But slotting this film as a Cliff Notes primer – a short-cut around the 2,000-plus books already written about the Dallas assassination – both underestimates and misses Stone’s point.
Just as his 2004 film, Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, was really not much about Patty Hearst – he didn’t interview her, focusing instead on her surviving kidnappers, remnants of the Symbionese Liberation Army – Oswald’s Ghost is not so much about Kennedy per se as a history of the belief in his assassination as an act of conspiracy and how the upheavals of the 60s as a decade unrolled from that point. Stone notes that, for many, Kennedy’s assassination and Vietnam merged into a continuum whose parts mirrored and reinforced each other. With “lie after lie after lie” about the prosecution of the Vietnam War from the government, asks investigator Josiah Thompson (his Six Seconds in Dallas proposed three assassins, five bullets), why not believe in some JFK plot and cover-up? And vice versa. Even before Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks,” the 60s saw Medgar Evers assassinated four months before JFK, Malcolm X assassinated in early 1965, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinated just two months apart in 1968.
But explicitly making this link between JFK’s death and Vietnam – laying out what may seem intuitively too obvious to belabor – allows the parallel with our own decade to snap sharply, vividly into focus. It seems entirely fitting that Stone premiered Oswald’s Ghost at Woodstock – with its conscious nod to the legendary rock festival, its poster and logo drawn by the psychedelic artist associated with that era, Peter Max – and that Stone has moved upstate himself with his productions offices in nearby Rhinebeck now so that such an icon becomes “my local film festival.”
To be sure, the roots of Oswald’s Ghost are deeper for Robert Stone than 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror. Stone says he’s wanted to make this movie for fifteen years, since seeing JFK, Oliver’s Stone’s 1991 film about New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s convoluted accusations against the CIA, with his truth serum and hypnotism and coded phone numbers and penchant for blaming gay men. Oswald’s Ghost features archival footage from a 1991 interview Oliver Stone gave on the set plus a clip of Senator Richard Russell explaining solemnly to Congress the steps that supposedly yielded Jack Ruby’s phone number. Robert Stone was only five years old when Dallas happened, but he still recalls watching Lee Harvey Oswald “crumple” on live TV when Jack Ruby shot him in a hallway full of police officers.
Dallas – that event about which we have no single set of facts everyone agrees on, the event that Kennedy’s successor in office, Lyndon Johnson, privately believed till he died involved conspiracy, to which he must respond by acting tough in the only place he could make the point, Vietnam – Dallas was simply the 9/11 of Robert Stone’s generation, what “robbed my generation of our idealism, optimism and security. In the past six years, we’ve watched a new generation experience that same trauma.”
At the time of the Woodstock Film Festival screenings, Stone related that he had just sold Guerilla to PBS and the BBC when he proposed the Oswald film to them. “It was the quickest pitch I ever gave: half a sentence.”
That link between eras is in the water these days. Photographer Geoffrey Clifford’s touring Smithsonian exhibit of Vietnam prints – a US pilot during the war, Clifford returned afterward numerous times – though slated in 2001 to tour nationally for two years, had bookings that kept it going until late last summer. It’s telling that young Iraq Veterans Against the War members have been distributing David Zeiger’s bracing, revelatory doc about Vietnam-era war resistance within the US military, Sir! No Sir!, out on DVD late last December, at peace marches. In May, Vincent Bugliosi – prosecutor of the 1969 Manson Family murders and author of Helter Skelter (1994) – published his Reclaiming History, two decades of research in defense of the Warren Commission’s official findings that Oswald acted alone. In January, Norman Mailer re-issued his 1995 effort to imagine his way inside the assassin’s psyche, Oswald’s Tale.
Three days before the Mailer book re-issue, Robert Stone had screened his work-in-progress once in Salt Lake City. Stone wastes no time making his link: Mailer essentially opens the film – after a long shot that strains upward through tree foliage at the window from which Oswald fired his shots – with his emphatic statement, “The real shock was philosophical – that American might not go on. The same kind of confusion followed 9/11.” Later Mailer elaborates that confusion in an elegant phrase as “a morass of possibilities” that introduces the section in the film that catalogues the range of conspiracy theorists and their books – Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest (the Warren Commission was honest but missed certain trails), Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment (the Warren Commission was in on it and knew shots came from two directions), Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas (three assassins, five bullets), Garrison. Photographed with his arm around Mailer for the film’s publicity stills, Stone has said that Mailer is the only person he interviewed for Oswald’s Ghost with the “intellectual honesty to change his mind about the assassination.” Concluding that Oswald was “damned bright,” Mailer says, “I wanted it to be a conspiracy, but I couldn’t make it add up.”
Hooking the Dallas assassination to the overall narrative of 1960s disillusion and rupture allows Robert Stone to more forcefully make the analogy with our own political situation now. Activists Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin, journalists Dan Rather and Hugh Aynesworth, and historians Robert Dallek and Priscilla Johnson McMillan (she knew Kennedy and had met Oswald when he lived in Russia as a defector) all speak thoughtfully and incisively about these links. Just as important, Stone unhooks something else that’s related to Mailer’s change of mind. That is, eventually not proving one’s conspiracy theory doesn’t diminish the meaning and damage of what flowed in part from fearing that Dallas conspiracy is one among others that were real.
It’s actually Norman Mailer – who effectively closes the film too, just before a long slow pan around the inside of the room from which Oswald fired – who names the film, remarking that Oswald is a ghost over American life.
In a lengthy 2001 interview with Christina Pochmursky for the Canadian Documentary Channel’s “InCamera” program – you can find this as an extra on the DVD of Stone’s first feature length documentary, the Oscar-nominated Radio Bikini (1987) – it’s evident that Stone has himself been a creature of that skeptical zeitgeist in his cinematic methods and subjects. With Radio Bikini, this Princeton historian’s son addressed the 1946 atomic tests on the Pacific island of Bikini that left it uninhabitable, the evacuation and dispersal of its people and the long-term health effects on the US sailors who were swimming in the bay ten hours after the blasts – and the huge, later scrapped plan (some 750 cameras) to film this project as a propaganda tool for world opinion in the wake of Hiroshima.
Radio Bikini already demonstrates Stone’s style – his collaging of archival footage and images, his fondness for long quiet shots that establish a palpable presence in places, his overlay of subjects’ images and conversations in place of a single narration, his preference for allowing audiences time to feel instead of bombarding them with facts and statistics, his gentle use of music as counterpoint to images. Stone has also made documentaries that explored the propaganda pervading the early US/Soviet space race (The Satellite Sky, 1990), the belief in government cover-ups of UFO’s in the 1950s (Farewell, Good Brothers, 1992), narcotics detectives in Atlantic City (American Babylon, 2000), how Vietnam has been recreated on film (Hollywood Vietnam, 2005). Stone says his films are about belief, about what happens to images projected into the arena of mass media spectacle. A fitting preoccupation for a child of Dallas.
For one thing, every year, 400,000 people visit Dealy Plaza in Dallas for the still-running guided assassination tours. About 70% of Americans still believe JFK’s death was engineered by conspiracy. Oswald’s Ghost just might come to a theater near you – coinciding with the official Woodstock premiere, Oswald’s Ghost also screened in San Francisco, and since then has had successive short stealth runs in Santa Fe and Portland, Oregon – but if it doesn’t, catch it on PBS’ America Experience on January 14th.
This review appears in the 10/29/07 issue of Stylusmagazine.com. Oswald’s Ghost starts its official theatrical run in New York City on November 30.