After decades of documentaries, fiction films, scholarly tomes, and mimeographed underground newsletters, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is as picked-over as a week-old Thanksgiving turkey. Yet for much of its running time, Robert Stone's documentary Oswald's Ghost proceeds as though it's delivering breaking news. Stone's stated purpose in making the film is to show how a national tragedy evolved into something like a worldview. Some people's reactions to the Kennedy shooting became their way of understanding the relationship between governments and their people, and in a roundabout way, explaining how 9/11 begat the Iraq War. But Stone gets sidetracked by details, and rather than thoroughly examining those ramifications, he winds up rehashing all the old arguments in favor of a Kennedy-killing conspiracy, and a few—too few—of the arguments against.
Still, though the material is hardly fresh, it retains some fascination, and Stone has assembled Oswald's Ghost well, with few of the stylistic tics that marred his Guerilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst. Stone tracks how the story evolved in public over the course of a decade, starting with immediate shock, followed by attempts to probe Lee Harvey Oswald's psyche, then considerations of how one gunman could've logistically pulled this off, and finally the proliferation of conspiracy theorists. Marking that evolution helps bring the work of the Warren Commission into clearer focus. Since they, like everyone, were proceeding from the premise that Oswald acted alone, they made the data fit the conclusion, however improbably.
Of course, some feel the Warren Commission got it right—though Stone doesn't really grant those people an audience—and some feel that they got it wrong on purpose, as part of the larger conspiracy. Oswald's Ghost isn't about settling the argument in any conclusive way; it's more about the creeping paranoia and distrust that began to seize the American people beginning in the '60s, as many asked, "If our government can certify a pack of lies like the Warren Report, then what else will they lie about?" Or at least it would've been about that, if Stone hadn't gotten caught up in hitting the assassination high points all over again. Late in the film, Stone interviews Norman Mailer, a one-time conspiracy-believer who eventually wrote a book that tried to get inside Oswald's head, explaining how Oswald's story is America's story. In less than a minute, Mailer describes the documentary Stone should've made.