Oliver Stone can rest easy; his preachy treatise on JFK's assassination remains atop the field of paranoid cinematic conspiracy theories, despite the release of writer/director Neil Burger's mockumentary, Interview with the Assassin. One of the great things about digital photography is that it allows more budding cinematographers and directors opportunities to create films, but this also leads to greater quantities of lame projects, which is the case with this one. Credit the success of the Blair Witch Project, the sexiness of the JFK assassination, and the continuing widespread belief in conspiracy and governmental cover-up that attracted Magnolia Pictures to distribute this film and give it a limited theatrical release.
The germ of Burger's idea came some twenty years ago in a Texas diner when a WWII veteran teased him with the story of a lifetime—that he knew people involved in the Kennedy assassination. After seeing a few fake documentaries, Burger mused,
"They were unsatisfying because you could see better films on the various subjects that were actually real documentaries. It seemed to me that if you were going to make a fake documentary, it better be about something you could never see in a real one."
That sounds good in theory, but Burger doesn't put it into practice unless you consider tidbits like amateurishly shot family home videos and improbable guns that clear security screeners realism. The scenario starts with unemployed San Bernadino cameraman Ron Kobeleski (Dylan Haggerty) being approached by his 62-year-old neighbor, Walter Ohlinger (Raymond Barry), with a secret that promises to be the "story of a lifetime." Now that Ohlinger is dying of cancer, he figures he has nothing to lose, so he claims to be the infamous shadowy grassy knoll gunman who delivered the fatal shot to JFK.
Naturally, this triggers hundreds of questions; Burger treads familiar documentary ground to follow up. Such a claim demands proof, so Ohlinger proceeds to supply a few details, including the supposed discarded shell from the fatal bullet and a visit to the man who coordinated the assassination—his former Marine CO, who apparently ties in with the C.I.A. By association that ties in with the Bay of Pigs fiasco and possibly the Vietnam military scenario outlined by Donald Sutherland in Oliver Stone's conspiracy theory, though the reasons are never specifically outlined in this mockumentary.
Less convincing is a revisit to Dealey Plaza where Ohlinger retraces his steps. Kennedy assassination theory buffs will recognize the grassy knoll scenario, as this has been proposed numerous times. Ohlinger merely walks through the motions of the oft-cited theory—a nice job of putting a real face on location, but hardly anything original. Stone's JFK outlined the same theory with more dramatic flair and also cites the disproportionate number of deaths to potential whistle-blowers like this film does.
What Burger achieves best is a sense of paranoia, created in the same minimalist "sticks and stones" style of The Blair Witch Project. A phone call prompts Ohlinger to assert that "they" are after him and Kobeleski, and the frantic filmmaker equips his house with security cameras that provide suspenseful false alarms and eerie shadows that could be government agents bent on preserving the secrecy behind the Kennedy plot. Veteran character actor Barry also dryly delivers thinly veiled threats convincingly, establishing either his connections with conspirators or his paranoid schitzophrenia.
But other parts expose Burger as a rank amateur, since he delivers enough holes to invalidate his all-too-familiar assassination theory. Everyone old enough to remember the assassination recalls exactly where he/she was when it occurred and can elaborate in detail various circumstances on that fateful date. So when Ohlinger's former wife remains fuzzy about that day, credibility is lost—even when Burger attempts to cover with the idea that Ohlinger's wife was in on the plot. Other problems arise with the use of the hand-held camera, designed to lend authenticity to the fake cinema verite project. While often appropriately shaky, the camera is far too smart for its own good—notably surprisingly steady when the filmmaker is driving away from suspected assassination agents. How did he set up that camera to shoot out his back window so clearly? Even more puzzling is the brief camera switch to the driving filmmaker.
Like the Blair Witch Project before it, Interview with the Assassin had a website during its theatrical release that included information about the film and the various JFK conspiracy theories. Despite being technically more accomplished than the BWP, it never conjured up the same craze that the amateurish horror hoax. If Burger actually had dug up some really unique perspective on the Kennedy assassination, it truly would be the "story of a lifetime," instead of the rather banal one-trick-pony show that this inevitably leads to. Outside of Burger's desire to make some kind of film, it's really unclear why this project was undertaken, given that it adds no substantial insights into the mind of an assassin, despite its disturbing portrait of a pure emotionless killing machine.