Oswald’s Ghost doesn’t float a new conspiracy theory about JFK’s assassination or try to breathe new life into any old ones. On the contrary, it’s a subtle debunking exercise about the psychology of conspiracy theories in general and why they’ve taken hold so deeply in this case. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole person responsible for killing the 35th president may not convince, but it’s the best we’ve got. While effectively loosening the event’s grip on our suspicions, the movie also reminds us why we remain enthralled and horrified—no matter how many times we see the Zapruder film, flinch from Kennedy’s post-mortem photo or hear Walter Cronkite make his somber TV pronouncement.
A standard talking-head picture, with no narration or stylistic aspirations, Oswald’s Ghost is primarily a forum for airing insights by Norman Mailer, who coins the title, author Edward Jay Epstein and historian Robert Dallek. Their thoughtful commentary is supplemented by three other writers/journalists, two prominent conspiracy proponents, two activists and a politician. With his own intelligent, bemused air of skepticism, Robert Stone shapes these contributions, reviewing the fateful event, its aftermath regarding Oswald’s guilt or innocence and, without rebutting them directly, the growth of conspiracy theories.
Although he often shifts abruptly from micro to macro, the film holds together, and a two-pronged thesis gradually emerges. No conspiracy theory has ever panned out or come remotely close to being proven. And yet we’ll probably never know exactly what happened in Dallas. Randomness and indeterminacy are the ultimate culprits and the key sources of doubt and dissatisfaction. As Dallek observes, we find it difficult to accept that an “inconsequential man killed a consequential one.” Oswald, a nerd with intellectual pretensions, is far less exciting a suspect than the CIA, the KGB, the mafia, Castro, LBJ or Nixon.
Consider that while he may be a compelling figure for novelists like Mailer, Oswald isn’t interesting or sympathetic enough to be a movie protagonist. That’s one reason Oliver Stone (who appears briefly and is not related to Robert) centered his powerful 1991 film JFK on New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison. His movie wove together multiple conspiracy theories and engaged on a level at which facts are less persuasive than the manner in which information is presented.
Mindful that nonfiction and fiction are two different animals and that one unassailable truth will always elude us, Robert Stone has created a riveting film of his own. He concludes with the statistic that 70 percent of Americans still think there was a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination. 9/11 may have supplanted it as the number-one object of conspiracy theories, yet speculation will never die. That’s the nature of conspiracy theories and their handmaidens, the difficulty of proving a positive and disproving a negative.
Distributor: 7th Art
Cast: Norman Mailer, Gary Hart, Tom Hayden and Mark Lane
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Robert Stone
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: November 30, 2007 NY