When Neil Burger's debut as feature-film writer and director, Interview with the Assassin, was being shopped around last fall, it had many intrigued but few interested enough to buy it for distribution. The theory goes that some distributors, among them Miramax, felt its subject matter was a bit off post-September 11; they were hesitant to release a movie -- yet another one -- in which it's suggested the government does not operate in the best interests of its citizens. It's doubtful that's why shoppers stayed away from this bargain, though; rarely is there a feel-good film about elected officials that doesn't feature space invaders, presidents who can fly hijacked airliners and/or Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen. And no matter the mood of the nation, movies in which the government stands in the spotlight or lurks in the shadows use mistrust as motivation and cynicism as storytelling -- especially when it comes to the assassination of John Kennedy, the subject of dozens of films, most deserving of their own magic bullet or two. (And, no, Mr. Stone, that doesn't mean your movie.) More likely, shoppers stayed away because Assassin is a quirky gamble -- a long shot, and please forgive the pun.
Do not read too much into Burger's mockumentary, then; it's just having a lark, poking fun at conspiracy theorists, taking the piss out of the dozens of docs out there that present themselves as The Real Story About the Killing of John Kennedy. Now, some may believe Interview with the Assassin is the real thing -- it's shot in cinema verité-style, "witnessed" through the lens of a cameraman who may or may not have run into the man who really did kill JFK -- but those are the same people who believe the Cubans and the Mafia joined hands with Tommy Lee Jones and Danny Aiello to hire Laurence Harvey to kill Fredric March or something. They're the same folks who've spent the last three years looking for the Blair Witch, when they're not waiting for Guffman.
Had Burger cast a complete unknown as Walter Ohlinger, the man who comes clean about his role in the Kennedy killing after (he claims) he's diagnosed with cancer, perhaps it would have suckered in the knowing. Had Burger done away with the closing credits, as he once intended, maybe it would have played more like doc than mock. But that would have just rendered it a thin, obnoxious novelty, a one-note joke; once you figured out this isn't the guy who really offed JFK from behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll, as he keeps insisting, the movie would lose its resonance, the joke its punch line. Interview with the Assassin works precisely because it transcends its direct-to-digital video format; the story keeps you hooked long after you realize, hey, that Ohlinger guy looks a lot like the police chief from The Ref or Earl Delacroix from Dead Man Walking (it's Raymond Barry, possessor of a dry, deadpan delivery that suggests he buys the premise more than anyone).
The film begins with Ohlinger telling his next-door neighbor, out-of-work San Bernardino TV cameraman Ron Kobeleski (Dylan Haggerty), that he was the man who put the bullet in the back of Kennedy's brain; he was just following orders given by his former commanding officer, John Seymour, during his stint in the U.S. Marines. "People wanted him out for good reason, and I got him out," Ohlinger explains, without a hint of remorse. "I was a hotshot back then, a sick fuck You kill the most powerful man in the world, I'd say that makes you the most powerful, don't you think? I was ready for that." Ohlinger spends the entirety of the film trying to convince Kobeleski he pulled the trigger: They buy guns, meet with old soldiers, tangle with shadowy figures who may be on their trail, meet up with a dying Seymour in a hospital room and, finally, end up in Washington, D.C., where the current president is about to speak. By film's end, we are not quite sure whether Ohlinger killed Kennedy, only that he truly is a dangerous man quite capable of murder. If he didn't kill Kennedy, he surely killed someone.
Assassin works because we're never sure if Ohlinger's on the level or merely a dying, delusional man trying to get into the history books before he croaks. Ohlinger is a creep and a kook, and like all madmen not to be taken lightly, a mistake Kobeleski -- and his skeptical wife, suckered in by strange shadows in the night that go bump, barely -- makes far too often. He's suckered in, then made a sucker, a fate endured by all those you still see, every day, wandering around Dealey Plaza scouring the concrete for open wounds. They should play Interview with the Assassin on a nonstop loop in the Sixth Floor Museum as a sort of welcome to those who enter not out of tribute, but a morbid fascination with a dead president. Burger has made the ultimate sick joke: The truth might kill you after all.
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