I have to say I was a bit confused with InSight Films' American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain, a documentary on Oswald's time in Minsk when he defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. Actually, the back of the DVD hardcase mirrors that confusion by describing the film as both a documentary and a docudrama. It's difficult to tell exactly what purpose American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain is trying to achieve. Is it an expose of Oswald's life in Russia? Or is it some kind of psychological examination of Oswald's personality, trying to tie up his defection with his actions in Dallas in 1963? Again, one is left a little puzzled after watching the documentary, because American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain doesn't answer any questions - because it doesn't pose any.
First off, just to set the record straight: I'm by no means an expert, in any way, on the Kennedy assassination or on Oswald. So don't send outraged emails to me (even though I usually enjoy those) because I'm just a duffer who has read a couple of books on the subject. That's the extent of my knowledge. That being said, what has always struck me as most curious, out of all the myriad contradictions and unexplainable episodes in this cipher's life (Oswald has to be the most famous unknowable personality in American history), was his seemingly easy defection to Russia (this, during the height of the Cold War, with Oswald a former Marine, no less), where he lived for three years, only to return to the United States after being labeled a defector - after the State Department loaned him the money to return home. Throughout American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain, everyone keeps asserting that both governments washed their hands of Oswald, constantly labeling him a useless goof-off. So why did everybody spend so much time looking after him?
I was hoping someone might answer that question in American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain, but no such luck. Producer, writer and director Robert Bayne evidently developed a relationship with film producers in Minsk, and set out to document what went on when Oswald lived there for almost three years (again, with Russia sending off millions to gulags for not toeing the party line, why did they put up Oswald in a "swank" apartment when he refused to attend party meeting?). Several interviews with Russians who worked and played (well, not really played - this was Communist Russia, after all) with Oswald are featured, yet nothing really earth-shattering is revealed. Oswald was a nonconformist, rude, lazy, incompetent in his job, unconcerned with fulfilling his party duties, and was viewed the same in Russia as he was viewed here: as a very odd duck.
But nowhere in American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain did I get solid, concrete facts - or even well thought-out theories or suppositions - about how exactly Oswald was permitted to stay in Russia, and why exactly he was allowed to leave, nor any solid, credible info on why he received so much largesse from the Soviet government, when he was almost immediately labeled on his arrival to the U.S.S.R. as basically useless to the government.
Filmed in present-day Minsk, Belarus (with some really poor re-enactments), American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain seems to be striving for some kind of legitimacy as the first documentary to expose defector's Oswald's life in the Soviet Union - events that are supposedly shadowed in secrecy even today. But perhaps the biggest problem American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain has is that generalized details are given out, but it's impossible to know whether they're true or not, given that the information came from the KGB. The film makes a big deal out of showing this huge green file, while the narrator (again, Robert Bayne) intones that this is Oswald's KGB file. But they never open it up to show the documents or pages inside. And no expert comes forth to verify it is indeed Oswald's file. And nowhere in the documentary, when facts are put forth that would seem to spring from this file, does anyone directly say, "according to this KGB file we found."
Considering how most Americans feel about the veracity of FBI files on any given subject, I have to admit I'm a little skeptical about that big green file, and what may be in it. Particularly after the back of the DVD case says that the filmmakers were threatened by the Belarusian KGB. That's odd, too, because nowhere in the film is that threat mentioned: you'd think that would be a natural for making the film more dramatic. And how do we know, if indeed that is Oswald's "official" file, if any of what's in it, is true? This is, after all, the KGB we're talking about, not Facts on File. Is this the file the KGB totes out for American journalists and historians who want the "official story" on Oswald? I don't know, but nothing in the film strongly sways me either way. For all I know after watching American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain, that could indeed be Oswald's file. But it could also be the Belarus Yellow Pages ("Just let your fingers do the walking, Dumbski...or else.").
And again, nothing in the film points to any kind of serious revelation about what, if any, connection Oswald's stay in Russia had with his shooting the President (I know, I know - there's a significant portion of readers out there who don't believe he did. I honestly don't know myself). A couple of times, the filmmakers suggest that his strained relationship with women put Oswald over the edge, directly linking that with his assassination of the President. Okay. But can you be a little more specific? Nope. It's just thrown out there. And once the doc is done with a little segment on what life was like for citizens of Russia during the 1960s (um...how did that get in there, along with that Russian guy singing 16 Tons?), we're back in Dallas for a familiar retread of the assassination, with American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain firmly behind the lone gunman theory (I have big problems with that one). Nothing in American Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald Behind the Iron Curtain convinced me of its theory, because fundamentally, it never posed one to believe or disbelieve.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.