Full disclosure. I spend every November 22nd watching Oliver Stone’s JFK. Partly because it is so visually arresting, partly for the compelling story, and partly for the nostalgia I have for my childhood home of New Orleans. It doesn’t matter that I knew even before first seeing it that Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner in full nerd mode) was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read in the Clay Shaw trial. It doesn’t matter that other parts of the film’s premise of inchoate conspiracies that lay behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 have been resoundingly disproved. I like the film. Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman’s meticulously ordered TRUTH IS THE ONLY CLIENT: THE OFFICIAL INVESTIGATION OF THE MURDER OF JOHN F. KENNEDY, speaks briefly to the public’s fascination and for, and overwhelming belief in, the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, including a deep-seated need to dismiss that one lone gunman change the course of history so easily. Its real purpose, though, is to address those theories in a thoughtful way that respectfully acknowledges the inconsistencies inherent in any criminal investigation, and then sets out to demonstrate why Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
Organized into modules overflowing with information that will delight any history buff, conspiracy inclined or not, it starts with the origins and constituency of the Warren Commission, featuring, as in all the modules, extended interviews with surviving participants from the legal research staff, including future Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer, and the staff historian, Alfred Goldberg, who was tasked with making the report, when it was released less than a year after the assassination, read like history, not a legal brief. We move on to Oswald himself, tracing his unconventional life story with insights from Pricilla Johnson McMillan, who first interviewed him after his defection to Russia, and later wrote Marina and Lee after winning the trust of Oswald’s widow. It brings us one of the most emotional moments in the film, as Ruth Paine, who took in Marina when the couple was having trouble, describes breaking the news to the Russian-born woman as she was hanging laundry in the backyard.
The evidence for conspiracy is addressed cogently, starting with the Magic Bullet, and the mysterious fourth gunshot picked up on a patrolman’s radio. The Zapruder film is analyzed frame by frame in extreme close-up, which, no matter how many times you see it, remains disturbing, as do the autopsy photos, which Chief Justice Earl Warren, who headed the eponymous commission, found so appalling that he wanted them locked away to spare the public, per this film, rather than to perpetrate a cover up. The forensic science of bullet wounds and what happens when half a brain is blown away are also covered decisively. As for the much-touted mob connections, there is disagreement among the talking heads, a telling sign that this is a documentary with a point of view, but not an agenda as the life story of Oswald assassin, Jack Ruby, unfolds. A highlight of this particular section is the interview with Bernard Weissman, a conservative Jew whose anti-JFK ad in a Dallas paper may have been the motive for Ruby’s actions. He wanted to prevent the Jews from being blamed for the assassination.
Not every conspiracy theory is addressed, even in the generous 135-minute running time. That would require an ongoing mini-series at the very least. Vincent Bugliosi, whose book Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was inspired by the mock trial of Oswald in which he participated, makes an interesting observation that I leave for you to ponder as to its validity. The very fact that there are so many theories proves that they are all groundless. I would point out Bugliosi is no establishment apologist. Another of his books posits the evidence against George W. Bush for war crimes.
Cinematically, TRUTH IS THE ONLY CLIENT does not break new ground, using as it does the standard tropes of talking heads and archival footage, and that is not a drawback considering the wealth of archival materials used, the fine editing, and the people themselves as they speak. I did appreciate the choice to begin not wit the usual new bulletins, with the Boston Symphony music director Erich Leinsdorf interrupting a concert in progress on that fateful day to announce the news, and then having the orchestra play a funeral dirge. It sets the stated goal that this will keep the story on a human scale. Rich in details, blissfully lacking hyperbole, this is a welcome scholarly approach to an emotional subject.