By James DiEugenio
It is difficult to understand why Robert Stone made his new documentary on the JFK case, Oswald's Ghost, which is airing on PBS stations nationwide on January 14, 2008.
There is good reason to approach this film with great skepticism. For one thing, it contains no new information. The Assassination Records Review Board has been closed down now for several years. There has been abundant time to go through the millions of new pages that have finally been declassified. Yet Stone chose not to do this. Which, of course, seems rather odd. What is even more odd is that although the film mentions Oliver Stone and his film JFK, the ARRB is never even mentioned in the picture. In other words, the body that literally almost doubled the amount of documentation available on the JFK case goes unnoticed in a film on that very case.
That tells you something about the film. So does Robert Stone's choice of interview subjects. There are eleven main talking heads in the film. Four of them deal with the historical, political, and sociological backdrop of the era: Tom Hayden, Robert Dallek, Todd Gitlin, and Gary Hart. Seven of them deal with the assassination itself. Two are from the conspiracy camp: Mark Lane and Josiah Thompson. Five of them are Warren Commission advocates: Dan Rather, Priscilla Johnson, Edward Epstein, Hugh Aynesworth, and the late Norman Mailer. And this quintet has a lot more screen time than Lane and Thompson.
So clearly, with this talking head line-up, Stone basically announces that he has no interest in divulging any new information or exploring any outstanding mysteries of this case. In fact, the very first shot in the film tells us where he is headed. It is of the so-called sniper's nest window, which the Warren Commission alleged that Lee Harvey Oswald fired from. The end features Mailer's bloviating voice-over about Oswald's ghost not being able to talk as we see first the accused assassin's gravestone and then a photo of a young Lee. So far from being any kind of free form, or even handed piece of investigatory journalism, the film stacks the deck and tries to lead the viewer to a preordained conclusion.
And if one knows little or nothing about the JFK case, that conclusion may be convincing not just because of the imbalance of the witnesses, but also because of the cinematic skill of the director. Few American documentaries I have seen have been done with the technical brio and facility of this one. In sound, pacing, montage, and use of photographic devices, the film is extraordinarily well executed. And the intermixing of audiotapes, narrative voice-over, archival footage, present day film, and witness interviews is effective at giving the film a well-knitted surface that implies texture and depth to the uninitiated.
But for someone who is not a novice, the film and its conclusion summon up the famous Chesterton comment. The first time G. K. Chesterton strolled down 42nd Street in Manhattan, he said, "What a wonderful experience this must be for someone who can't read." Because as with the first and last shots, the film is a transparent set-up. There is very little discussion of the evidence. The single bullet theory is barely mentioned and is not illustrated. The magic bullet, CE 399, goes unnoticed. The Zapruder film is used, but only in a very limited way. The only time the head snap at frame Z 313 is shown it is not with the Robert Groden, rotoscoped version i.e. enlarged, slowed down, and stabilized. So therefore it does not have its usual visual impact. When Stone does show that version of the film, he cuts right before frame 313, the head snap, to a shot of Oswald walking in the opposite way. To me, this was a clear subliminal message betraying both the director's sophistication and his bias.
The structure of the film is essentially chronological. It begins with the events of November 22nd in Dallas. As recited by Aynesworth, Stone depicts the assassination, the shooting of J. D. Tippit, and Oswald's apprehension and incarceration. We then watch the shooting of Oswald by Ruby and how this then provoked President Johnson into creating the Warren Commission. There is very little discussion of how the Warren Commission worked or how they arrived at their conclusions. The third movement of the film tells us about the wave of books and articles that were published in the wake of the Commission's findings. But again, there is very little, if any, enumeration of what was in any of these books. For example, Stone creates a scene in which we look down at a kind of black pit. He then drops several of these books from above the camera and we watch them disappear into this bottomless hole. It's quite an achievement to drop a monograph as well done as Ray Marcus' The Bastard Bullet and try and tell the audience by visual metaphor that it means nothing.
The film then goes to a fourth section, which is on the investigation by New Orleans DA Jim Garrison. If there were any doubts about the director having an agenda, they are quickly dispelled here. The two leading witnesses on the Garrison inquiry are Aynesworth and Epstein. This would be like doing a special on Bill and Hillary Clinton and having as your two chief talking heads Ann Coulter and Christopher Ruddy. But director Stone has no qualms about letting these two men expound at length on the DA, with rather predictable results. Aynesworth brings up the Sodium Pentothal (truth serum) session conducted at Mercy Hospital by Dr. Esmond Fatter with Perry Russo. And he dusts off the old chestnut that was used by his friend James Phelan: by rearranging the sessions in time sequence, he makes it appear that Fatter was leading, even implanting, information in Russo's mind. The film then heightens this impression by using overexposed photography as a background. Lisa Pease previously exposed this distorting technique at length as used by Phelan. (See Probe Vol. 6 No. 5 p. 26). It was also used by Shaw's defense team, of which Aynesworth was a full-fledged member, an important fact that the film keeps from the viewer.
The next swipe the film takes at Garrison is his use of a questionable codebreaking device in one of Shaw's address books to adduce Jack Ruby's unlisted phone number. The film milks this for all it is worth -- which is not very much -- as we see both Epstein and Aynesworth talk about it, along with Lane. What the film leaves out, of course, is that when one is dealing with a complex, labyrinthine crime that has been well-disguised, then blind alleys and faulty hypotheses will naturally be encountered. And eventually discarded, as this eventually was. This particular attack on Garrison highlights the imbalance of the piece. For if one is going to skewer the DA about a faulty theory he eventually abandoned, then why not blister the Warren Commission about several of its dubious findings which it never abandoned? To use just one example: the condition of the magic bullet, CE 399. Why didn't Stone show the comparison photographs of test bullets in the experiments Dr. Joseph Dolce did and then have him testify that it was impossible to get such a pristine result by shooting the bullet into flesh and bone? Dolce was a true authority in the field with no bias involved. Something that cannot be said about Aynesworth and Epstein.
I was really saddened to see Stone allow Epstein to characterize the discovery of Clay Shaw through Russo's characterization of Clem Bertrand as a homosexual. This is just wrong of course, as Garrison first got interested in Shaw through Dean Andrews' testimony in the Warren Commission. (And Andrews' testimony interested others such as Lane and Sylvia Meagher.) From this faulty assumption, Stone then goes into a segment that actually tries to characterize the Garrison inquiry as some kind of excuse for homosexual persecution. This is so irresponsible as to border on the malicious. Culminating this reckless and wild sequence, Stone allows Clay Shaw to tell us that Garrison is a character out of Machiavelli: he will utilize any kind of means to achieve his end. The message being that Machiavelli/Garrison would even falsely accuse an unfortunate closet homosexual of being a conspirator.
And this is where I thought the film really started to break down and dissolve into a slick propaganda piece. For to discuss the Garrison inquiry and leave out what is probably his greatest discovery is ridiculous. I am referring to the address on Oswald's Fair Play for Cuba flyer: 544 Camp Street. Which of course was the location of rabid right winger Guy Banister's office. But if you watch the film you eventually understand why the director has to leave this crucial piece of information out. It relates to the ludicrously outdated and one-sided portrait of Oswald. Which is lifted right out of the Warren Report, only slightly moderated by Johnson and Mailer. In this film Oswald is the malcontent Marxist loner who wanted to be a Big Man in History, and strike a blow for the cause. But if Stone would have gone into the whole 544 Camp Street mystery and how it leads Oswald to people like Banister, Kerry Thornley, the Cuban exiles, David Ferrie, Clay Shaw and then later to the Clinton-Jackson incident, then the viewer will have something called cognitive dissonance. In other words, he will have to ask himself: What the heck is a Communist doing with all these nutty CIA guys who want to overthrow Castro? And the viewer might then notice another lacunae in the film: If Oswald was a communist, why has the film not produced any communist comrades who were in a cell with him? Maybe because there weren't any? Perhaps because Oswald wasn't a communist at all? Which is precisely what Garrison said in his famous Playboy interview.
Relating to this last point, there is another interesting methodogical paradox with which Stone closes the section on Garrison. He has Epstein say that the DA ended up not just attacking those who defended the Warren Commission, but he then accused his critics in the press of being involved in a coordinated attack on him. At this point, an honest investigator would have asked Epstein the following questions: 1) Did the CIA distribute any of your articles on Garrison? 2) Did you forward any of your research materials to Clay Shaw's defense team?, and 3) Were you in contact with any of the other lawyers who were defending witnesses or other suspects in the Garrison inquiry? And if Epstein denied any of this, I could have furnished Stone with documents on camera to contravene the denial. It would have been interesting to listen to Epstein's response. But of course, with the releases of the ARRB, the very same thing could have been done with Aynseworth and Johnson. Which is probably why Stone ignored those releases. And if you do not tell your audience this about the loyalties of your "authorities" what does this then say about your honesty toward them and your own bona fides in making the film?
After the hatchet job on Garrison, Stone moves onto Gary Hart and the Church Committee investigation. Hart mentions the CIA coup attempts, the assassination plots against foreign leaders, and the plots to kill Castro. But even here, Stone curtails his portrait of the Church Committee by concentrating on serial liar Judith Exner. And I should also note that this is essentially where the story rather arbitrarily stops. I say arbitrarily because the natural progression -- both historically and by cause and effect -- should have been from the Church Committee to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. The film never even mentions the HSCA. With Stone's record, one has to postulate that one reason could have been because that body came to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy in the JFK case.
The last part of the film essentially does two things: it pontificates about there being no real evidence produced for a cohesive and convincing conspiracy scenario, and it then hammers home the misfit portrayal of the accused assassin Oswald. Epstein does most of the former and, of course, if one ignores all the new evidence, one can get away with such a sleight of hand. But before Epstein made this pronouncement, I would have asked Mr. Stone if he ever read any of the new ARRB releases. If he said no, then I would suggest a new documentary to him based on just four areas of evidence. In order: the Clinton-Jackson incident, Oswald in Mexico City, the ballistics, and the autopsy. With just fifteen minutes on each, one could convincingly show that a) Oswald was being manipulated and impersonated in advance of the assassination b) That the "magic bullet" was never identified by the witnesses who discovered it c) That the bullet-lead evidence used to connect Oswald to the crime is phony, and d) That the Bethesda autopsy hid evidence of a blown out back of the head and multiple shooters.
I think that would contravene Epstein rather nicely.
The very end of the film intercuts the Mailer/Johnson triteness about Oswald --actually accusing him of shooting at Edwin Walker and killing Tippit -- with people visiting Dealey Plaza and buying pamphlets on the case. The film shows us close-ups of money being exchanged in these transactions. So Stone's parting shot is that while certain gifted writers (he actually labels Priscilla Johnson an historian) know the truth, there are those who still try and confuse the public about the facts of this case. And since the public does not want to believe a loser like Oswald killed a great hero like Kennedy, the business still goes on. You can only do this of course, if you ignore the evidence. And, as I mentioned above, that is the worst part of this whole enterprise. Oswald's Ghost wants to take us back to 1970. It is as if the HSCA, JFK, and the ARRB never existed. Which makes me wonder about the people at PBS, which helped make this film for the series The American Experience. In 1993 they gave us the outrageously one sided Frontline special on Oswald, and now this: two Warren Commission carbon copies in 14 years.Yet this is not what PBS is supposed to be about. It is supposed to be about alternatives to network offerings. How can you have a special on the Kennedy case which features Dan Rather and call it an alternative to what the networks are offering? It is not any such thing. It is more of the same under a different, slicker disguise. But that does not make the underlying result any less cheap in its approach or worthless in its value.
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