'Oswald's Ghost' Explores the Allure of JFK's Death The 1963 Warren Commission found that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy. But even now, 44 years later, conspiracy theories abound. Robert Stone's upcoming film Oswald's Ghost explores the U.S. fascination with Kennedy's death.
NPR logo

'Oswald's Ghost' Explores the Allure of JFK's Death

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16400399/16400365" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Oswald's Ghost' Explores the Allure of JFK's Death

'Oswald's Ghost' Explores the Allure of JFK's Death

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16400399/16400365" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


If you're old enough to remember what happened 44 years ago this Thursday, you'll always remember it.

(Soundbite of archived news report)

Unidentified Man #1: From Dallas Texas, the flash - apparently official -President Kennedy died at 1 p.m., Central Standard Time; two o'clock, Eastern Standard Time. Some 38 minutes ago.

HANSEN: More than 2,000 books have been written about the assassination of John Kennedy. Some put forth conspiracy theories that involved everyone from the CIA to Lyndon Johnson, from the Cubans to the Mafia. Most - and certainly the most credible - point to Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin. Now, filmmaker Robert Stone has taken on the enigma of Oswald. His new documentary, "Oswald's Ghost," explains that the nation - indeed, the world - was never the same after November 22, 1963. And Mr. Stone is in our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ROBERT STONE (Filmmaker, "Oswald's Ghost"): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: With all the books, films, seminars about the Kennedy assassination, what did you feel that you had to add to the subject?

Mr. STONE: Well, I felt that nobody had really tackled the heart of the issue. There's been all these films about, as you said - that were trying to examine a particular conspiracy theory that might account for what had taken place. And then there are the usual sort of debunking films that the networks throw out every five years on the anniversary. But nobody had ever sort of looked at it as a phenomenon. Why are we still talking about this? What has this trauma done to us as a nation and how has it informed our world view.

And I think, in many ways, there's a subtle parable here to 9/11. I think most people would agree that we're still in a state of sort of post-traumatic stress in this country out of what happened in 9/11. I think the clearest analogy to that - perhaps the only one - is what happened to this country after the Kennedy assassination. So it's really an attempt to look back at this, not just the assassination itself, but the impact it had - the impact and the conspiracy theories and the lack of a resolution of what it did to this country.

HANSEN: The question is pretty cliche so I apologize in advance for asking it. But where were you when John Kennedy was shot?

Mr. STONE: I just turned five. I don't remember - all I remember of that weekend is watching Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on television, my mother being horrified that I was - I watched it live. But it was, you know, for me, it's not so much just the Kennedy assassination. This movie and what the movie is about, is so much a story of my life and certainly so many other Americans who grew up with political assassinations, riots, protests against the war, Watergate. And this was the world that we were born into. And I think we've spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure it out and make sense of it. And one of the ways that, I think, many of us do make sense of it, is through these conspiracy theories.

HANSEN: Hmm. Your film had some incredible archival material that's never been put before the public before. There's a scene, for example, of the dead president that I don't ever remember seeing a picture. And there were conversations by the Dallas police officers over the police radio right after the assassination. Here's just a small excerpt.

(Soundbite of recorded Dallas police call)

Unidentified Man #2: Attention, all squad. The suspect in the killing is thought to be an unknown white male, about 30, slender build, 5 feet 10 inches tall, 165 pounds. No further description at this time or information. 10-45.

HANSEN: Robert Stone, how did you get this tape?

Mr. STONE: Well, the amazing thing was, in making this film, we thought it'd be almost impossible to find anything new. It turned out there was tons of stuff, including the Dallas police tapes which were lost for many years. I guess the Warren Commission made - I think they sent it to 3M to analyze the tapes back in 1964. Somehow, a copy ended up in the Minneapolis Public Library, that was discovered a number of years ago by a researcher who - and it was then stolen from the library. So it's got this whole sort of mystery to it.

But at the end of the day, we're able to get a hold of this. And I think the police tapes are incredibly informative to really assess out what actually happened in a minute by minute basis in the moments after Kennedy was killed. And what is clear is that the attention focused on Lee Harvey Oswald very, very soon. And this idea that everybody was running in the wrong direction and pursuing other leads is just factually incorrect.

HANSEN: Is that what strikes you about listening to it now?

Mr. STONE: Yeah. I mean, within minutes, there were witnesses who saw him pointing a gun out the window. And they've, you know, he was the one member of the Texas Book Depository staff who would disappeared. They knew who he was. And he ended up being pulled over by a cop about an hour later, and he shot and killed the cop.

HANSEN: The film has interviews with Gary Hart, a very young Gary Hart - Tom Hayden, very young. And you also include the insights of the late Norman Mailer. And this is one of the ones he shares in your film.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Oswald's Ghost")

Mr. NORMAN MAILER (Writer): Oswald is a ghost who sits paramount in American life. The ghost that lay over great many discussions of where are some of the real roots of American history. What's abominable and maddening about ghosts is you'll never know the answer. Is it this or is it that? You can't know because the ghost doesn't tell you.

HANSEN: He's suggesting, you know, the truth is never going to be known about the Kennedy assassination. What do you think your film contributes to the quest for an answer?

Mr. STONE: Well, the last third of the film certainly puts forth an answer that I think is the conclusion that Mailer himself came to after years of believing that there was a larger conspiracy involved. And I think Mailer's great achievement was to provide a kind of counter narrative to the conspiracy theories that's satisfactory in that one can get one's head around. And the answer lies on Oswald's character, in Oswald's personality. He spent five years writing a book about Oswald.

And if you really get to know Oswald - which is what we sort of probe in the last third of the film - you come away with - at least, I certainly come away with a feeling that he's almost the perfect person to have assassinated the president of the United States. And that understanding him - he's a fascinating person. He's not just some loopy guy who just pops out of nowhere and kills the president. It does provide, I think, some closure to understand Oswald as a person and not to see him as this sort of cardboard character as he's been portrayed in so many conspiracy theories.

HANSEN: Do you think the question we're really asking here is not necessarily who but why?

Mr. STONE: It's that. But it's - I think it's also trying to explain how everything went so bad. And you know, the things I was talking about before in terms of what I've experienced in my life, they're really was - I think, one of the fascinations with Kennedy beyond the assassination is that, I think, there really was this time of hope and forward-looking and progressive outlook an feeling of that this country can take on challenges and move forward. And all of that was dashed with his assassination.

And then what spiraled afterwards - with Vietnam and the loss of faith in our institutions of government and our loss of faith in the media, loss in faith in almost all institutions of power and authority in this country - is blamed on this event and how did everything go so wrong? I think that's what we're trying to explain, because the Kennedy assassination was the single moment that kicked it all off.

HANSEN: How do you think your own understand of Lee Harvey Oswald changed during the course of your research?

Mr. STONE: Well, just - I think I had a kind of an epiphany in sitting in the sniper's nest in Dallas where Oswald took his shots. And I was struck by how small Dealey Plaza is and how easy the shot was. And what struck me the most was that he waited for the last possible second to kill Kennedy. He had a much easier shot. And I kind of, for a moment, got inside his head. I don't think he was sure that he was going to do it or that he has the guts to do it until the very, very last second. And he thought, this is my moment in history. I work in this building. I see myself as a man who's destined to make his mark in history, yet I'm just a clerk in this pretty cheesy job in the Book Depository.

The president of the United States is driving right past in front of me. I see myself as an assassin. I've already tried to assassinate somebody a few months ago. This my moment. I just think he - I think he liked Kennedy but he just couldn't help but do it. Because if he didn't do it, he would be a failure and probably would have killed himself. I think he was seriously bipolar, but I just, for a moment, got inside his mind. And I think it was just a flash. And I think from that point on, I became convinced that he did it based on his character and his abilities.

HANSEN: Robert Stone is the writer, producer and director of "Oswald's Ghost." The film opens this month in New York and next month in Los Angeles. It will air as part of the "American Experience" series on PBS in January. And he joined us from our New York Bureau.

Thanks a lot. Good luck with the film.

Mr. STONE: Thanks very much for having me.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.