Oceans of ink and miles of film have been devoted to the lingering mystery of John Kennedy's assassination. That can make things a bit challenging for a documentary filmmaker hoping to shed light on the subject. Fortunately, Oswald's Ghost, part of PBS' The American Experience series, boasts modest aspirations and enough craftsmanship to make it worthwhile -- if not exactly revelatory.
Documentary maker Robert Stone (Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst) offers a broad overview of the continued fascination surrounding the assassination and alleged killer Lee Harvey Oswald. Through archival news footage and interviews with various historians and journalists, the documentarian chronicles how the JFK slaying stoked American paranoia and a distrust of government that informed the Sixties' antiwar movement and counterculture. The lineup of interviewees here include writer Norman Mailer, political activist Tom Hayden, ex-U.S. Sen. Gary Hart and attorney Mark Lane, whose book Rush to Judgment helped spur the cottage industry of assassination conspiracy theories.
This all might sound like pretty ambitious stuff, but most viewers above the age of 30 are likely to be familiar with theories that the JFK killing was engineered by conspiracies encompassing (take your pick) Fidel Castro, the CIA, the KGB, the Mafia or -- as Woody Allen quipped in Annie Hall -- the men's room attendant at the White House. Oswald's Ghost hits most of the saga's touchstones, from the controversial "magic bullet" theory proposed by former Warren Commission junior counsel (and current U.S. senator) Arlen Specter to the impact of the infamous 8mm home movie shot by Abraham Zapruder.
Conspiracy buffs will find the doc covers well-traveled territory -- a notable exception are the recorded phone calls between Lyndon Johnson and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover -- but the narrative of Oswald's Ghost is concise and absorbing. While Stone stops short of dismissing the conspiracy theories (although he clearly believes Oswald acted alone), he does effectively eviscerate the loopy witchhunt conducted by late New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, the subject of Oliver Stone's 1991 motion picture JFK. Robert Stone (no relation) explores the tortured machinations that Garrison used to link Oswald to New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw.
The combination of newsreel footage and recently shot interviews means inconsistent picture quality, but overall details are sharp and clear, with solid black tones.
Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0. Rear speakers don't get much of a workout in the surround mix, but it deftly showcases the film's music score.
In A Visit to Dealey Plaza, Robert Stone gives a platform to some of the fascinating conspiracy mongers who work the area hawking their wares. Speaking as someone who has visited Dealey many times, it's a singular experience that Stone manages to capture in only nine minutes and three seconds.
The Zapruder Film and Beyond (22:12) is an informative mini-documentary that zeroes in on the 26-second home movie and the incalculable impact it had perpetuating widespread belief of a second gunman.
Wrapping things up is a 15-minute, 47-second interview with Robert Stone, in which the filmmaker discusses his documentary.
Oswald's Ghost is a solid, handsomely made primer for audiences who know little about the JFK assassination and its immutable hold on the popular imagination. Viewers with more than a cursory knowledge of the assassination won't learn much new, but Robert Stone's documentary remains thoroughly interesting and watchable.