American Experience, Robert Stone’s 90-minute documentary isn’t a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald but rather his ghost, that nagging specter of doubt and conspiracy that has haunted America ever since John F. Kennedy's assassination more than 40 years ago.
Using the recollections and research of witnesses, journalists, historians and biographers, Stone’s film begins with those six shocking seconds in Dallas, followed by the fatal shooting of police officer J.D. Tippit on a Dallas street 45 minutes later, Oswald’s subsequent arrest at a movie theater and the immediate suspicion that Oswald was just the tip of a larger, possibly foreign-led conspiracy. Whatever answers Oswald could have provided were silenced two days later by strip-club owner Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald as he was being transferred from Dallas police headquarters. The 26.6 seconds of Super-8 footage shot by clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder, Philadelphia DA Arlen Spector’s suspect “magic bullet” theory and the Warren Commission's finding that Oswald acted alone, which only seemed to fan the flames of suspicion born out of the nation’s disbelief that someone so inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald could have killed the president of the United States. Suspects were numerous the KGB, CIA and FBI, pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, the Mafia, the South Vietnamese and within a year the first trickle of what quickly became a flood of books on the subject began to appear, some suggesting that the commission’s investigation overlooked the possibility of a conspiracy (Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest: The Warren commission and the Establishment of Truth) while others (namely Mark Lane’s bestselling Rush to Judgment) accused the Commission itself of being in cahoots with conspirators. As the '60s wore on, growing conspiracy fever which culminated in wild-eyed New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s insane numerological theory that linked the city's gay demimonde to Kennedy’s murder reflected growing public distrust in a government whose lies about the ongoing war in Vietnam had begun to surface. When the resignation of president Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal was directly followed by the so-called Church Commission, which revealed assassination plots of foreign leaders cooked up by the CIA and the FBI, the idea that a U.S. president could have been similarly murdered by a rogue element in the intelligence community didn’t seem so outlandish.
Veteran conspiracy buffs probably won’t find much of Stone's material particularly new, but Stone’s film does serve as a neat summary for the rest of us while offering a number of intriguing insights into how conspiracy theories work and what they say about specific cultural and political climates. Stone doesn’t reveal how he himself feels about the assassination, but he does give the final word to late Oswald biographer Norman Mailer, a would-be conspiracist who ultimately concluded that Oswald was a weak, insecure man with a Will to Power who murdered a president because he could. leave a comment --Ken Fox