Conventional but engrossing, Oswald’s Ghost makes a terrific primer for anyone interested in studying or just learning something about John F. Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath. Director Robert Stone covers his subject in a thorough, straightforward fashion and finds relevancy between that momentous tragedy and 9/11. Though the film may not change many minds about what happened and why, at least it attempts to describe and explain events like few other documentaries on the same topic.
One of the benefits of Oswald’s Ghost is getting to see all the familiar footage (from the Zapruder film to Walter Cronkite’s on-air emotion to Oswald’s own assassination) strung together into one comprehensive and streamlined narrative. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, Stone unveils rarer yet just as fascinating archival material—Oswald’s defiant mother defending her son, a young Arlen Specter positing the “magic bullet” theory, maverick attorney Jim Garrison begging the public to reject the Warren Commission’s flawed report, and so on. (The character of Garrison was the dashing and heroic protagonist in Oliver Stone’s over-the-top JFK, but here he comes off quite differently.)
Stone also gets newly recorded reflections and analysis by leading writers and politicians of the era—Norman Mailer, Gary Hart, Tom Hayden, Mark Lane, Edward J. Epstein and others. It is all the more bittersweet to see and hear Mailer in this film so soon after his death; the final sequence contains his eloquent and touching thoughts about Oswald’s place in history.
Oswald’s Ghost needed a few more moments like that last one to reach beyond the prosaic and acknowledge in a formalistic way the film’s point about the powerful nature of conspiracy theories, myths and real-life mysteries. In the end, it becomes clear that the traditional documentary approach doesn’t fit the subject, but Stone and company deserve credit for trying to make sense of something enigmatic and unknowable and connecting an old history with current events (specifically, the theories about 9/11). Not surprisingly, the staid PBS series “American Experience” will showcase this production in a future airing.
Until a great avant-garde film using the same materials comes along, we have Oswald’s Ghost.