Interview With the Assassin (2002)

2002-11-15 (Limited release)

On the trail of the millennium’s biggest news story, freelance cameraman Roy Kobeleski (Dylan Haggerty) follows retired U.S. Marine Walt Ohlinger (Raymond J. Berry) down the back alleys behind Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. As Ohlinger recounts the events of November 22, 1963, the paunchy, sixty-something ex-Marine takes position behind a picket fence overlooking the plaza — on the legendary grassy knoll — and holds an imaginary sniper rifle steady, takes his bead on an imaginary motorcade.

“Squeeze, recoil, impact,” he says dryly to Kobeleski. “It was my shot.” Meaning that his was the head shot that so famously killed President Kennedy, 39 years before.

It is the best of a handful of powerful moments in Neil Burger’s Interview With the Assassin, a Blair Witch-inspired mockumentary that, while based on a brilliant premise, is disappointingly bumpy nonetheless. The idea behind the movie seems particularly well-suited to the faux-documentary genre: an unemployed cameraman discovers that his neighbor across the street is, or claims to be, a member of the government-sponsored assassination team that snuffed out Kennedy, and the movie adopts Kobeleski’s point of view as he takes video recorder in hand and follows Ohlinger on the trail of the higher-ups who orchestrated the murder.

Interview frequently feels forced into the documentary style, particularly during points of tension when its credibility becomes hopelessly strained and the struggle to keep the camera rolling grows overwrought. For example: much later, as Kobeleski finds reason to doubt Ohlinger’s story, he takes great pains to secretly film his confrontation with Ohlinger even though he has previously argued that the filming has all been a waste of time. After he comes to believe that shadowy thugs are menacing him and his family, Kobeleski — though jobless and nearly destitute — somehow finds the resources to install a sophisticated closed-circuit camera system around his house.

Granted, this effectively demonstrates Kobeleski’s descent into paranoia (or into a conspiracy far more complex and more powerful than he; the ultimate question the movie poses is, naturally, never quite resolved). It also provides at least one exquisitely tense scene, as Kobeleski and his wife rewind the CCTV’s footage, chasing after a bump and a shadow that may be either a cat rummaging through the trash, or an intruder bent on silencing him. Even so, the ever-present cameras come across far too often as gimmicks and one suspects that The Blair Witch Project, clever as it was, will never inspire a successful imitation.

When the movie does work, it’s more often than not because of Raymond J. Berry’s understated rendering of the assassin, Ohlinger, as a simple, humorless man given to the petty cruelties of a schoolyard bully. Time and again, Ohlinger treats the awkward Kobeleski contemptuously, half-jokingly threatens him with violence, or discusses the murder of Kennedy coldly, refusing to bring remorse or reflection to his role. “How does it feel to be back in Dallas?” Kobeleski asks, seeking — as he does repeatedly — to draw from Ohlinger some sense of the great weight of history resting on his shoulders. Ohlinger’s reply is unexpectedly vacant: “I don’t feel nothin’.”

By resisting the temptation to make Ohlinger into a mythically demonic figure, Berry continually reinforces the notion that the riflemen on the grassy knoll were merely hired guns, and that therefore the real evil is to be found above them, at the crown of some vaguely defined covert hierarchy. Soon enough Kobeleski and Ohlinger leave off trying to reconstruct the episode at Dealey Plaza in favor of seeking the architects behind the assassination.

First they track down Jimmy Jones (Jared McVay), a fellow solider of Ohlinger’s during his time in the Marines, and then follow a lead gotten from Jones to pursue John Seymour, the commander of the assassination team and the participant most likely to know who ordered Kennedy’s death and why.

In the search for the masterminds behind Kennedy’s murder, the movie finds license for its second half, which meanders off into a well-traveled mood of strangeness and indeterminacy. “Well-traveled” in the sense that what Interview does, we’ve seen many times before: as Kobeleski has more and more trouble verifying any of Ohlinger’s story, the movie becomes pervasively ambiguous in the mode of, say, Suspicion, Body Double, and many other such movies. Are the events our heroes are witnessing the signs of an insidious criminal plot, or are they all in the protagonists’ imaginations?

The movie investigates this trope with great enthusiasm, as if no one had ever happened on it before. This yields a few interesting nuggets, as when the duo finally locate a bed-ridden John Seymour at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and sneak in to interview him. After a pregnant exchange — Ohlinger insinuates a threat to Seymour’s family, which causes Seymour’s beeping heart monitor to speed up — Ohlinger suggests that he might be able to get more information out of the ill and anxious Seymour if Kobeleski leaves the room. Kobeleski stands in the hall for a while, looking apprehensively at the hospital employees who stroll by, eyeing him with suspicion — and when Ohlinger emerges, Seymour’s heart monitor has gone flatline.

It’s a fascinating moment, as all the movie’s ambiguities converge on a single question: what happened behind that door? Has Ohlinger murdered an unfortunate and innocent Seymour (who, moments earlier, tells Kobeleski that Ohlinger was once in a mental institution)? Did Seymour, consumed with shame over helping kill JFK, take his own life? Or was his death, as Ohlinger maintains while he and Kobeleski sneak briskly out of the hospital, merely an amazing coincidence?

All of these are intriguing possibilities. Too bad we’ve had to work so hard to get to them. For instance, we’ve had to suspend our disbelief as Ohlinger and Kobeleski steal into the vigorously secure hospital using phony press passes, which Ohlinger forges with snapshots he buys from a three-for-a-buck photo booth. And Kobeleski strolls past vigilant hospital guards wearing a pair of goofy glasses with a camera between the lenses, simply because if he doesn’t, the movie ends up with no scene.

That Interview goes through such contortions to maintain its cinema verit√© mood is perhaps understandable, given director Neil Burger’s expressed goal in making the movie — not so much to investigate the Kennedy assassination as to explore epistemological notions about how one apprehends and understands truth. Because of this (as Burger warns in an interview on the political assassination research and speculation website “Black Op Radio”) conspiracy theorists expecting new insight into the JFK murder are liable to be disappointed with Interview. (And he’s right: I was.)

Burger’s feeling seems to be that although conspiracy theory is sometimes necessary (for instance, to counter the government’s fairly obvious fondness for propaganda and misinformation), it inevitably leads its practitioner into a miasma of unsubstantiated rumor and ever more fantastic conjecture. He illustrates this idea using the Oliver Stone movie JFK (1992), which he says does a good job of wrapping “all the theories” about the JFK assassination into one film.

Actually, JFK does a good job of wrapping exactly two theories into one film: Jim Garrison’s in On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs’ in Crossfire: the Plot That Killed Kennedy. What’s more, these books make many of the same arguments. Excluding the nuttier, X-Files-type fables — that Kennedy was killed by space aliens, say, for reasons having to do with Marilyn Monroe and Area 51 — the corpus of theories about Kennedy’s murder is, in fact, unnervingly consistent. Sometimes they differ in particulars but for the most part they hone in on one overall contention, which JFK summarizes well enough: that the Pentagon, the CIA, and other government and industry bigwigs killed Kennedy to pave the way for Vietnam. This idea meets with a lot of criticism, certainly, but it isn’t nearly so nebulous and open-ended as Burger seems to think.