A nervy experiment in speculative fiction, this lengthy made-for-television movie imagines what might have happened if Jack Ruby hadn’t killed Lee Harvey Oswald following Oswald’s arrest for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Interestingly, it’s the third such project, following a 1964 indie movie and a 1967 play, both of which are also named The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, but neither of which were used as source material for this telefilm.) As the title suggests, much of this picture depicts courtroom proceedings, during which such familiar topics as the potential presence of a grassy-knoll shooter and the impossible trajectory of the “magic bullet” are discussed. Before delving too deep, it should be noted that the movie cops out in a big way at the ending, using a convenient narrative contrivance to avoid presenting a verdict. Furthermore, although The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald has nothing approaching the intensity or power of JFK (1991), there’s an unmistakable parallel between this project and Oliver Stone’s controversial movie, so if you only have the appetite for one fictionalized story about whether Oswald acted alone, Stone’s is the better choice.
The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald opens with historical events strongly suggesting Oswald had the opportunity, if not necessarily the motive, to kill JFK, though the filmmakers deliberately avoid showing the actual shooting. Following Oswald’s arrest, the film makes its big leap by showing Oswald’s infamous perp walk through the Dallas Municipal Building without the Ruby incident, so Oswald (John Pleshette) survives to stand trial. The government assigns Anson Roberts (Ben Gazzara) to prosecute, and flamboyant Matthew Arnold Watson (Lorne Greene) steps forward as defense attorney. Battle lines are drawn quickly. Roberts recognizes the civic benefits of resolving the case definitively and quickly, and Watson hits the same walls encountered by every skeptic who scrutinizes the JFK assassination, because he can’t identify a credible motivation for Oswald and he can’t believe Oswald was such an expert marksman that all three shots discharged from the Texas School Book Depository hit their targets.
In the film’s most dynamic scene, Watson drags the jury to the depository and has two people, a decorated marksman and an amateur, attempt to re-create Oswald’s alleged shooting pattern while cars filled with mannequins are used to replicate Kennedy’s doomed motorcade. This scene combines logic, research, and style to make a strong argument against the possibility of Oswald acting alone. As with all things related to JFK’s assassination, however, every credible argument has a seemingly credible counter-argument.
Within these inherently murky parameters, the folks behind The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald do some things well. A scene of Roberts receiving direct pressure from JFK’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, is believable and unnerving; the notion that the government put its hand on the scale to deliver a desired result reverberates for anyone who’s ever questioned the findings of the Warren Commission. Where The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald falters is in the portrayal of Oswald himself. Presenting him as a cipher allows the filmmakers to generate mystery and suspense, but it’s a cheat, since the project’s very title promises insights into Oswald’s psychology. Nonetheless, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald commands a certain measure of attention. The underlying subject matter is fascinating and important, the performances are never less than adequate, and the use of many real artifacts and locations adds gravitas.
The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald: GROOVY