When Neil Burger's debut as feature-film writer and director, Interview with the Assassin, was being shopped around more than a year ago, it had many intrigued but few interested enough to buy it for distribution. The theory goes that some distributors, among them Miramax, thought its subject matter felt 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 ever 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, cynicism as storytelling -- especially when it comes to the assassination of John F. 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 Interview's 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 Kennedy. 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. But that would have just rendered it thin, obnoxious novelty, a one-note joke. 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, California, 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 Marines. "People wanted him out for good reason, and I got him out," Ohlinger explains, without a hint of remorse. 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 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.
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 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 as a morbid fascination with a dead president. Burger has made the ultimate sick joke: The truth might kill you after all. And really, you have to love the fact that it originally opened in Dallas on November 22. That's the funniest gag of all.
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