Constructing a Madman: Lee Harvey Oswald’s Screen Life

Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - JFK (1991)

This Lee Harvey Oswald essay contains spoilers for Executive Action, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, Ruby and Oswald, JFK, Ruby, In the Line of Fire, Interview with the Assassin, Killing Kennedy, Parkland and 11.22.63. Check out VV reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


There is a scene in Don DeLillo’s 1988 novel Libra in which Lee Harvey Oswald sits in front of a TV with his wife, Marina. They watch a late-night double bill: We Were Strangers (1949) and Suddenly (1954). Oswald is overcome by the feeling that he is being sent a direct message by those within the power structure who have taken an interest in him, that they are using the screen to outline the possibilities that lie in front of him. For the character, it is a window into two potential futures, a gracefully staged battle between the competing parts of himself — John Garfield’s selfless revolutionary ally in We Were Strangers and Frank Sinatra’s cold-eyed gun-for-hire in Suddenly vie for supremacy of Oswald’s future identity. The man who Oswald would become succeeded in tearing a breach into the fabric of history; the moment that defined him on a November day in Dallas “broke the back of the American century,” as DeLillo describes it. In seeking to turn his back on history’s burden, Oswald offers a glimpse into a previously hidden world. The curtain was pulled back to expose the tawdry mechanics of the performance.

DeLillo’s Oswald embodies a horrible contradiction, as he is a figure in a constant state of opposition. Will he fulfill his desire to emulate Garfield’s Tony Fenner, a foreign idealist who helps to instigate an uprising in Cuba? Or is he destined to become Sinatra’s John Baron, the veteran turned hood who is hired to assassinate the president? It seemed as if Oswald was constructing himself in real time, searching for a garb that fit. Media serves as a guide, a set of packaged precepts and archetypes to direct him through the wilderness of alienation and ambition. Oswald became the latest face of a recurring nightmare to plague the collective unconscious — Suddenly brims with references to John Wilkes Booth, Giuseppe Zangara, Charles J. Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, the cast of doomed men who took swipes at history’s imperious veneer. Baron says with a sort of dejection that “when you’ve got a gun, you are a sort of god.” In the various versions of Oswald that have been dramatized, one scene retains it piquancy: Oswald standing in his backyard and posing for the infamous photo of him holding his rifle and a copy of the Daily Worker. It is a rare moment of self-possession, a fleeting chance to cast off marriage, fatherhood, poverty and failure to register his presence.

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But there is equally a belief that the photo is a forgery — such is the uncertainty that continues to swirl around Oswald. He belongs among the gallery of monsters, his capacity to elicit horror is undiminished (it is no coincidence that Wes Craven chose Elm Street as the stalking ground for Freddy Krueger, this being the place in Dealey Plaza where the assassination of President Kennedy took place). Oswald was a precursor to the movie slasher, but he is a unique type of cultural monster, one whose menace stems from their powerlessness. So much of what we understand about Oswald was shaped by television coverage — the Kennedy assassination was the first fully televised tragedy, and replay became the only way of processing what had been digested in the initial surfeit of shock. TV sought to make what had transpired explicable but only instilled a deeper confusion. Into this confusion came conspiratorial thinking. Conspiracy rises from the distress of leaving what seemed like a stable cycle and spiraling into a different trajectory. In the disorientation, the world feels unfamiliar and unreal. So, a stabilizing force is sought.

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With general skepticism about the official Oswald narrative came a deluge of conspiracy material in the 60s and 70s, but no work was more explicitly grounded in historical contention than Executive Action (1973). Written in collaboration with Mark Lane — the foremost researcher on the conspiracy at the heart of the Kennedy assassination — the film delves into the world of America’s permanent government, and lays out the machinations which led to the president being slain on the streets of Dallas. Executive Action presents a nucleus of wealthy interests who stand in opposition to the Kennedy dynasty and its coalition of “big city machines, labor, negroes, Jews, liberals and the press” which is hellbent on pushing the U.S. toward racial desegregation, nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Vietnam. Burt Lancaster’s James Farrington tells the assembled plutocrats that “our presidents are killed by madmen.” It becomes their mission to construct that madman, to select “some crazy damn fool who did it all himself.” Oswald is sold to the plotters as someone with “a remarkably muddled political record that can be steered strongly to the left.” Oswald’s life is nudged toward its fate — the perfect vessel, a man without agency who is consumed by the current of history. This “perfect stand-in for Brutus” is watched from afar, engaging in useful political theater. The lights go up and the stage empties, leaving only Oswald blinking in the spotlight, the designated madman with a gun in his hand.

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - Executive Action (1973 Movie Film)

In the immediate aftermath, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964) presented a scenario in which Oswald (Charles Mazyrack) was not gunned down by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters. The film places the audience in the position of a juror, asking viewers to question their preconceptions, prejudices and the media-molding of events. It feels like an attempt to process the shock and explicate motive; a fanciful hope, implying that such things are clearcut, that Oswald was explicable and justice would serve as national catharsis. It is an attempt to present a more rounded image of Oswald, who is only seen in profile and intense close-ups, yet to fully emerge into public view, to puncture the facade and solidify into something more than the sum total of his various alter egos (O.H. Lee, Alex Hidell, et al); the swollen specter paraded before the assembled press. But the time was not right to delve too deeply, and The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald disappeared. The subject remained at a remove, as he could not yet be humanized. Yet Oswald’s voice haunts the production through a recording of a radio appearance from the time when he was part of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee: faltering and flustered, it is the sound of a man entangled in the fabric of historical exigency and looking for a drastic means of egress.

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Oswald was featured again in 1977’s TV miniseries The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, an act of happy dreaming which posits the pleasant hypothetical of the subject (John Pleshette) being deconstructed on the stand. Oswald is shown enjoying his platform, consuming himself on TV from his isolation cell, surrounded by press clippings about himself. He sits like a sacred yet fragile artifact of a lost future. The more his narrative is pored over in a quest for clues, the greater Oswald’s hubris and defiance becomes. This Oswald is less bewildered in the recreations of his parade through the police station upon his capture; he relishes the role, relieved to finally know who those with such capabilities had been twisting him into all along. The trial is the culmination of so much searching — Oswald’s defection to the U.S.S.R., his mysterious return to the U.S.A. with a Russian wife, the breakdown of his marriage, the violence in search of an outlet, the squalid rooming house where the old romanticism and revolutionary spirit went to die. While taking some time to swim in conspiratorial waters, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald positions Oswald as a co-conspirator rather than a patsy, more Sinatra than Garfield.

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1977)

Oswald falls perfectly into the frame, struggling to live with the reality of the systems he had painted as a paradise or a prison, playing into some larger motive known only to himself. Defense attorney Matthew Weldon (Lorne Greene) states that “the secret is in Oswald,” waiting to break through the canvas. Meanwhile, prosecutor Anson Roberts (Ben Gazzara) refuses to accept that “a poor schlub who couldn’t hold down a job is capable of meticulously planning a presidential assassination.” Oswald is equally “a defective” and a font of curiosity — obscured by too many shadows, passing through the hands of multiple powers. Pleshette’s Oswald is a much more calculating figure than previously depicted; there is a swagger, a certainty, a satisfaction at his standing at the center of events. There are echoes of Charles Manson when he vows to dismiss his counsel and represent himself, a grandiosity which leads Weldon to ask “Do you think he’s insane?” and ponder whether he could have been programmed. Oswald accepts that he can no longer live in the world — he is an abstraction now, casting off his aliases to become purely himself. Oswald is displayed in the courthouse like a rare bird, unable to exist outside of his controlled environment — he had constantly been held in such a state of suspension, fed and directed toward a larger aim obscure to all but those who can see further into the future. Alive or dead, Oswald was a manifestation of a hidden current in American life.

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Oswald, Kennedy and Ruby are a triumvirate whose fates are inextricably bound, and the 1978 TV movie Ruby and Oswald brings a New Hollywood flavor to its examination of the day that brought the historical figures into alignment. Frederic Forrest’s Oswald has an awkwardness to his demeanor; he appears physically constricted, a force seeming to weigh down his wiry frame. His actions are studied, as if terrified of betraying something that may destabilize his intricately assembled identity. As Oswald, Forrest gives the impression of rehearsing human behavior; his words and actions have a robotic, rote quality — he poses as something he can never be, his blankness matching the mood of what is an oddly detached piece, standing in contrast to the emotional ructions to come. Forrest succeeds in manifesting flashes of Oswald’s inner struggle — blinking rapidly, moving in defiance of his surroundings, staring into the middle distance as if he can see his destiny approaching. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, when Oswald is standing at the vending machine in the lunch room of the Texas School Book Depository where he worked, a police officer rushes in and aims his gun at the subject. Forrest’s character walks towards the weapon without apparent fear, a faint smile on his face, as if tempting death to take him — Oswald has made the decisive break, beckoning the abyss. Like the film itself, Forrest’s performance attempts to strip away any attempt to contextualize the subject; he is all the more unsettling for his remoteness, echoing New Hollywood antiheroes like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - Ruby and Oswald (1978)

Oswald’s circumspection is contrasted by the sweaty gregariousness of Ruby (Michael Lerner), but it equally masks an inner tumult and simmering rage. The bodies of both men seem unable to comply with their desires; they both carry their own debts — they are equally in hock to powerful interests and the logic of force. But Ruby and Oswald offers no histrionics, no howls of injustice — simply an acceptance that political violence is a staple of American life (and would resonate through the decade with the killings of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X). Kennedy is the apotheosis of celebrity culture, the apogee of American exceptionalism, a superstar brand selling newness, vibrancy and change; he is joined by the unprepossessing gunman, an abstraction amounting to a collection of photos and film footage. Viewers are encouraged to piece Oswald together from their own corpus of fear. Oswald and Ruby is a piece refracted through the malaise of the late 70s, and it’s telling that the subject was put to rest throughout the 80s, a decade in which self-advancement assumed primacy and social concerns took a backseat as the baby boomer generation reconciled itself to inheriting power.

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It was JFK (1991) which spurred a resurgence of interest in Oswald, and revived the talk of a conspiracy. Oliver Stone’s bravura work traverses a world that seems increasingly distorted and hostile, a reality that is suddenly off kilter, whose foundations of historical materialism founder in the face of ruthless agendas and generational trauma. In Stone’s hands, Oswald (Gary Oldman) becomes a symbol of the boomers’ attempt to make the world comply to their views and ideals, but ending up being forced into a variety of costumes. Kennedy’s violent public death was a rupture, a bracing reminder of the ugly strain of reaction that dwelt within the highest reaches of government and business in the U.S.A. The boomers sought to process the implications of this tilted reality through their popular entertainment. JFK is a deftly presented and forcefully argued compendium of conspiratorial thought, a breathless polemic which riffs indignantly on the loss of national innocence that sent a generation turning inward. 

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - JFK (1991)

New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) participates in the media event by watching Oswald appear on the screen. The lawyer’s wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek), comments that the suspect “sure looks like a creep,” but Garrison is convinced that Oswald is more than the character he plays on TV. The barrier between the world and the screen had been broken; the cozy certainties of TV had been bathed in blood. Oswald played his role to perfection, and took his bow for the astounded audience. Garrison compares the suspect to Josef K in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and there are certainly parallels between Oldman’s performance and Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Josef K in Orson Welles’ hallucinatory adaptation of The Trial (1962). Oldman’s Oswald is a mass of twitchy movements and jittery locutions as he stumbles through a monochrome nightmare, his diction faltering as his reason is confounded. Like Roberts in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, Garrison becomes obsessed with unpicking how a figure as undistinguished as Oswald could dent the American self-perception so emphatically. Garrison finds a “lonely kid, no father” who “acts overtly Marxist” while serving at a top-secret air base in Japan; someone who is witnessed in the “homosexual underworld” of New Orleans with David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) and Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) and attached to the anti-Castro vanguard of Cuban exiles being overseen by PI and FBI employee Guy Banister (Edward Asner). Oswald’s life offers up a conundrum.

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Like Josef K, JFK’s Oswald is unprepared when his summons is delivered; this was not how he had envisaged being called up, what had previously seemed steadfast is now thrown into doubt. The world shows its true dimensions as it closes in, any proximity to its center is lethal. Oswald finds himself an idealist in a world of professionals, looking for an identifying structure. What defines him also condemns him. Garrison states that “they’d put Oswald together from day one, like some dummy corporation in the Bahamas.” In line with this, Oldman’s performance is a composite, a presence in pursuit of a form, slipping inexorably into archetypes as he recites the lines and slides into the position of “the angry lone nut,” a useful adjunct to the real players. A frantic Ferrie tells Garrison that the “Agency plays for keeps,” that Oswald is a “wannabe dancing between the raindrops” cast down by cohorts of “Agency, mob, Cubans” who switch outfits with bewildering regularity, succumbing to the same paranoia, getting lost in the costume, never knowing who composes the lines. Former black ops agent Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) tells Garrison that what had unfolded on TV was simply “scenery for the public.” Oswald was the star of this scene, and Oldman captures his essential ambiguity and plunging incredulity when certainty deigns to smile upon him. Oswald’s is the pain of alighting upon a definitive position, far from the ease and relief which accompanied earlier iterations of the subject.

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In JFK, Stone seeks to ease the enduring grief of those “children of a slain father-leader” and fire up the young — to whom the film is dedicated — by opening their eyes to “the secret murder at the heart of the American Dream.” He sets out to achieve this dual purpose by focusing on the “why”  rather than the “how and who.” Oswald had been situated firmly within the “how and who,” his life had been reduced to a potted biography: he was one of the “lone, crazed men” who committed “a meaningless act of a loner.” Oswald was condemned by “the official legend.” In Stone’s estimation, the suspected assassin was crushed under the weight of an oppressive hope for self-understanding, a stable definition, an historical arc to trace. JFK stimulated an upsurge in interest in the events surrounding 11/22/63, tapping into a wellspring of cynicism that found its expression in everything from network TV to populist cinema. Ruby (1992) was released there months after JFK, and was consumed in the imposing shadow of Stone’s statement film. It tells the story of small-time Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby (Danny Aiello), whose close relationship to local law enforcement and complicated entanglements with intelligence and organized crime culminate in his murdering Lee Harvey Oswald (Willie Garson) on live TV.

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - Ruby (1992)

Where Lerner’s Ruby in Ruby and Oswald is a highly strung patriot who acts out of a desire to spare Jackie Kennedy the indignity of a trial, in Ruby, he is a denizen of various underworlds — criminal, political, sexual. Like Oswald, he is another small man straining to leave his mark, operating in the wings of political theatre, understanding the necessity of keeping the show going for his own survival. The most intriguing character in Ruby is Candy Cane (Sherilyn Fenn), a dancer at Ruby’s Carousel Club. Like Oswald, Candy is compelled to perform, dancing to the tune of her paymasters, created in the image of the dominant priorities. Oswald takes the stage as dutifully as Candy, making the necessary gestures — Ferrie (Tobin Bell) tells Ruby that if you “take a kid, any kid, get them young, you can turn them into anything.” Ruby articulates a persistent fear, a persuasive sense of peril, when he laments that “everything’s connected up wrong, the system’s fucked,” speaking to a feeling of vertigo that echoed through the boomer mind when he declares that “once upon a time, everyone knew where they stood.”

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The ghosts of assassins past haunt Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993) in the form of Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a self-aware sniper who has done his homework and sets out to enter the pantheon of American monsters. Leary takes on the pseudonym “Booth” in his interactions with Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood), a grizzled Secret Service agent who was part of Kennedy’s security detail and is “the only active agent who lost a president.” The boomer redemption arc is in full effect, as Horrigan sets out to rectify a historic failure. It is the events at Dealey Plaza entering their mythic phase, a referential circle at the end of history. In Leary, Oswald merges with Scorpio from Dirty Harry (1971), assuring Horrigan that “They’re going to write books about us.” The possibility of changing history was explored throughout the 90s, as the boomers assumed power and began to reflect on the compromises that were required of them in the process of integrating themselves into the virtues and values of the establishment.

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - In the Line of Fire (1993)

Quantum Leap kicked off its fifth season in 1993 with a two-part episode in which body-hopping physicist Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) leaps into Lee Harvey Oswald (Willie Garson). But unlike Beckett’s other leaps, a residue of Oswald remains — “loose neurons” that result in a battle to throw the assassin off course and determine the path of the possible conspiracy. Beckett says with horror that he can feel Oswald in him, struggling with the man’s rage and militancy. Playing off Stone, Beckett and his holographic guide, Al (Dean Stockwell), speculate on the possibility that Oswald was set up, but this is largely in service of lampooning the stew of conspiracy theories that had blossomed from JFK’s success. Talk of conspiracy recedes and Beckett concludes that Oswald is just “some frustrated loser who was trying to get attention any way he could,” a theory that would gain currency as the ideological impetus for situating the suspect’s actions receded from the general consciousness. Beckett manages to leap out of Oswald at the decisive moment, but in doing so the “truth” is revealed — that it is “more comforting to believe in plots,” that the notion of Oswald acting alone is too disquieting to countenance. It had to be reiterated that presidents are killed by madmen.

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Series seven of British sci-fi comedy show Red Dwarf began in 1997 with the crew of the Starbug spacecraft travelling back to Dallas to track down supplies of lager and curry for lairy crew member Dave Lister (Craig Charles). But they find themselves meddling with the fate of life on Earth when they land in the Texas School Book Depository on 11/22/63 and prevent Oswald (Toby Aspin) from committing the deed. Kennedy survives and is impeached following a sex scandal, J. Edgar Hoover is installed as president by the Mafia and the Cold War escalates to a nuclear exchange. The crew are then tasked with pulling off the assassination to set history back on course, recruiting a future version of Kennedy to act as the second gunman on the grassy knoll, to save him from his disgrace and retain his status as a ‘liberal icon,” unsullied by personal weakness and enduring as myth. Quantum Leap and Red Dwarf both posit that history cannot be rectified, only ameliorated; it was a stance which reflected the quiet acceptance of a generation who had been animated by social injustice and saw Kennedy as a talisman during a period of stability with the end of the Cold War and the declaration of victory over history. But the event endured in the imagination, and Oswald’s shadow extended into the next century.

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The young to whom Stone dedicated JFK took up the suspicion of the official narrative his film had sewn. The events in Dallas became a kind of original sin, felt as acutely by Gen X-ers who condemned the failure of their forebears, and boomers looking to recapture a lost idyll. It was something more than nostalgia — it had assumed the status of an existential quest, a collective effort to amend the record of public emotion. In the quasi-documentary Interview with the Assassin (2002), Walter Ohlinger (Raymond J. Barry) is an ex-marine with terminal cancer who claims he was the second gunman who fired the lethal headshot. As proof, Ohlinger has a sacred artifact: the spent shell. Interview with the Assassin is a study in fantasy, history and the space between, with shades of Man Bites Dog (1992) in its formal playfulness. Neil Burger’s film details a condition in which everyone has bought into the validity of the conspiracy, none more so than unemployed cameraman Ron Kobeleski (Dylan Haggerty), who falls completely into Ohlinger’s world; Kobeleski needs to keep Ohlinger’s story afloat, the conspiracy cannot admit any contradictions. Conspiracy has assumed such cultural currency that Ohlinger feels he must redeem his share of the historical dividend. Oswald has claimed an undue share of infamy — he took the spotlight away from real professionals — and Ohlinger craves his cut of the cachet on the way out, to leave his final imprint. Ohlinger dismisses Oswald as “an idiot, that’s why they set him up.” But in being set up, Oswald became enmeshed in the affairs of great power. Ohlinger tells Kobeleski, “You kill the most powerful man in the world, that makes you the most powerful.” The empire is always vulnerable to small men with outsized grudges.

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - Interview with the Assassin (2002)

In the early 2010s, a sense of loss and regret set in as the effects of the financial crisis began to bite and impacted living standards. Boomers yearned for closure on their generation’s defining trauma — so much so that they believed presidential candidate Donald Trump’s promise to release all the documents pertaining to the Kennedy assassination. The TV movie Killing Kennedy (2013) is an adaptation of the book co-authored by former Fox News megaphone Bill O’Reilly — who, along with Martin Dugard, had previously killed Lincoln, and would go on to kill a host of revered historical figures. Killing Kennedy hopped onto the trend for lurid true crime retellings with a veneer of forensic detachment; but as with all of O’Reilly’s output, subtlety isn’t high on the agenda. The analysis doesn’t extend much beyond the act itself, and it’s hardly surprising that it does not indulge in anything which diverges from the version promulgated by the Warren Commission tasked with examining the assassination. The story hits all the major plot points in Oswald’s life, a facile reading of such a complex figure, riddled with clunky expository dialogue and cliched speechifying. Both Oswald (Will Rothhaar) and Kennedy (Rob Lowe) are painted with a broad brush, designed to fit the neat narrative schema of the format. 

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In Killing Kennedy, Oswald has an almost reptilian quality, stripped of Forrest’s inner-conflict and Oldman’s pathos. He is clammy and confrontational, played with a charmless focus, a man whose caprices robbed a generation of “the shining moment” that Kennedy and Camelot were grasping toward. Oswald is boiled down to the man with the burning grudge, a deluded idealist who Marina (Michelle Trachtenberg) describes as a “little bird” flitting from branch to branch. Killing Kennedy betrays the admiration of power, status and privilege in American life — Kennedy was one of the country’s anointed, and Oswald recoils at the way in which “money buys everything here,” making himself alien in the process. Writers O’Reilly, Dugard and Kelly Masterson cannot conceive of a motive beyond personal ambition and enmity, suggesting that Oswald’s abiding belief in his personal significance is what guided him. Oswald is a solitary actor, burning with resentment at his own destination in life — it is a characterization in line with O’Reilly’s own beliefs about personal responsibility as the sole determinant of outcomes. Killing Kennedy morphs Oswald from Josef K in The Trial to Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — the underworld dweller for whom violent action is a salve for personal crisis, seeking a reprieve by imposing himself on the world. There is an almost romantic faith in law enforcement and the country’s institutions, turning the murky world of espionage and realpolitik into a pseudo-Dickensian tale of two men forever bound by the vicissitudes of fate.

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Parkland (2013) is an overwrought drama centering on the Dallas hospital where JFK and Oswald were both pronounced dead. The loss and longing in Peter Landesman’s film positively drips from the screen as the characters are thrust into the whirlwind of a day that was “too much, too ugly, too fast,” in the words of one news announcer. It is an exercise in cinematic world building, providing a strange kind of boomer fan service which dwells on the periphery of the historical record. Oswald is a structuring absence for most of the film, but when he does emerge, Jeremy Strong brings all the requisite bravado. The Succession actor’s solitary scene in the aftermath of his arrest paints Oswald as a cocksure wiseacre who is fortified by his sudden transformation, poised beyond life into something elemental. Stong’s Oswald exudes the comfort of having nothing left, of playing the final notes with a flourish. In the confusion, he has assumed his definitive form. Oswald is the residue of something incomprehensible. All the animus and alienation has coalesced and left only a disquieting outline. After speaking with his newly infamous brother, a disoriented Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale) states “I have no idea who that was.”

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - Parkland (2013)

Oswald’s image triggers “a thousand what ifs,” and the Hulu series based on Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63 (2016) plays with those possibilities in its story of Jake Epping (James Franco), a teacher and frustrated writer in the throes of divorce who finds a portal back to 1960 and sets about preventing the Kennedy assassination from happening. 11.22.63 was released in another banner year for American polarization, one which found a significant cohort going down the rabbit hole in pursuit of a fresh sense of direction. Epping’s mission is to save a lineage of liberal thought, to “make the world a better place” by recapturing the fundamentals of the American Dream. It is a fortifying fable in the face of a world that no longer complies to the old patterns and textures. There is an almost sensual attachment to the taste of old food and the contours of old cars, and Epping immerses himself in this effervescent post-war plenty; the odds are stacked in his favor as a white man with a seemingly infinite expanse of possibility before him. Oswald (Daniel Webber) must be erased to preserve these stakes, to extend Epping’s lucky streak and allow him to change his story along with the nation’s. There are brief reminders that this dreamland is built on a base of inequality and suffering, but this is overwhelmed by remorse that a certain kind of American greatness was lost with Kennedy, and everything since has been an endless retread, an attempt to recapture fragments of that glory.

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The world into which Epping enters is a sandbox for national regeneration, and he sinks into the prevailing paranoia with the gusto of a hardened conspiracist. Oswald is an apostate from the consumer consensus, its professed superiority in color television. If the personal is political, then Oswald commits the ultimate affront to personal destiny — he is the dark spot on the flawless portrait carried into the present. But the assassination merely punctuated the tensions that had already been germinating. In taking out Oswald, the threat only mutates; Oswald stood for a persistent current, the truculent tip of a vast iceberg. 11.22.63 strains to fit Oswald and Kennedy into a simplistic duality, to reduce them to the moral universe of the superhero comics kids pick up from the newsstands. It is the rationale of humanitarian intervention, of getting one’s hands dirty for the greater good. But there are always unintended consequences — the world refuses to comply to the plan, with the result that “something had been broken in all of us, and it could never get repaired,” as Al, Chris Cooper’s Vietnam vet diner owner, tells Epping. Al carries all the grief and pain of his generation, and he’s desperate to lift the curse that Oswald’s act set off. 

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Lee Harvey Oswald Essay - 11.22.63 (2016)

Webber’s Oswald offers a more angsty take — he is a vengeful nebbish who harbors a sense of his own unheralded importance. He is willing to be somebody’s instrument, relishing his shot, creating a spectacle for those who possess real power. This Oswald is the petulant bastard of the military-industrial complex. By the time Epping reaches him, Oswald is already a figure from antiquity, and Franco’s character tracks him on his path to immortality; he is invested with all the dark significance of his moniker, an American legend like Billy the Kid. While 11.22.63 ultimately endorses the official version, the paranoia cannot be resisted. Epping has absorbed generations of conspiratorial thought and the cynicism that grew out of the late 60s. All institutions are suspect, and Franco’s protagonist gets lost in the drama of dissent no less than Oswald. Epping shares the assassin’s dislocation, he belongs nowhere. Epping lives in fear of disappearing completely from history’s current, serving multiple surrogate fathers with designs on the spoils. 

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What 11.22.63 may have stumbled upon is that we have all turned into Lee Harvey Oswald. We are all lone actors, private agitators aiding nebulous interests, grist for history’s mill, convincing ourselves that we are the main character of our drama. We act alone to ends that may not even make sense to ourselves, but the impact will be indisputable, so we take aim. Epping learns that he needs to allow history to unfold and drive away; Oswald is necessary, as he completes the portrait of the American century. His role was integral — the empire can tolerate a little horror, a sobering shadow that keeps those in the metropole on their toes. Nightmares alert us to threats. It dawns on Epping that there was no glorious path which Oswald barred. Try as we might, we are never truly liberated. Oswald was a participant in history, as are we all; we can never slip free from its fetters. Oswald is distraught at the notion that “nobody knows me,” and we are still speculating as to who Lee Harvey Oswald really was. He was looking for a secure spot in the cast, to die a hero for whatever cause could accommodate him, to feed his form into someone else’s theory of revolution. In our attempt to fill in the gaps of the Oswald character, we recast him again and again, hoping that the latest iteration will reveal a previously hidden angle.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

Lee Harvey Oswald Essay: Related — Soundtracks of Television: ‘The Recruit’

Constructing a Madman: Lee Harvey Oswald’s Screen Life
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Constructing a Madman: Lee Harvey Oswald’s Screen Life
"In our attempt to fill in the gaps of the Oswald character, we recast him again and again, hoping that the latest iteration will reveal a previously hidden angle."
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