As a tutorial on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — encompassing the enormity of the tragedy, the testimony of eyewitnesses and other contemporaries, the scenarios of conspiracy theorists and, perhaps most important, the enduring impact on the American psyche — “Oswald’s Ghost” impresses as a concise, intelligent and rigorously well-researched piece of work. After a brief theatrical run to roughly coincide with the 44th anniversary of the epochal event, this latest effort from documaker Robert Stone (“Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst”) will attract an attentive aud during its scheduled Jan. 14 airing on PBS.
Adroitly interweaving archival material (some of it surprisingly unfamiliar) with commentary by TV newscaster Dan Rather, former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart and Warren Commission critic Mark Lane, among others, Stone emphasizes how, for Americans alive and sentient on Nov. 22, 1963, the JFK assassination was every bit as traumatic as the events of 9/11. Baby boomers may take this for granted, of course, but docu should prove invaluably enlightening to younger auds who do not have living memories of the 35th U.S. president’s life and times.
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Stone also attempts to pierce through the clouds of mystery that still engulf Lee Harvey Oswald, viewed here variously as a clueless patsy, a lethally accurate killer or possibly both. “Oswald’s Ghost” duly notes that, even now, an estimated 70% of all Americans believe Oswald did not act alone.
But pic is structured so that its emotional climax unmistakably is the scene in which Norman Mailer — whose recent death makes his weary gravitas here all the more affecting — admits, with equal measures of sadness and resignation, that he reluctantly came to believe Oswald changed the course of history on his own: “That there were conspiracies being contemplated, even attempted on that day, I’m perfectly willing to accept. But the conclusions I came to were for me rational ones, because (Oswald) had a motive for doing it, because he was capable of doing it — and because he wanted to do it.”