'Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?' review: Absorbing

Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Kennedy, holds up his manacled hands at police headquarters in Dallas, where he is held for questioning. (Nov. 22, 1963) Photo Credit: AP

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REVIEW

THE DOCUMENTARY "Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 10 on WNET/13

WHAT'S IT ABOUT In this two-hour edited version of "Frontline's" exhaustive three-hour investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald that first aired Nov. 16, 1993, the same key elements remain: Born Oct. 18, 1939 in New Orleans, Oswald lead a rootless and largely parentless existence as a child and youth (for a few years in New York City). He later joined the Marines and defected to the Soviet Union where he attempted suicide and then came to the attention of the KGB, which wondered whether this strange young man could be "useful." They quickly determined otherwise. He returned with a young wife to the States, where the mystery really deepens, particularly when Oswald (presumably) makes contact with Guy Banister and David Ferrie, two virulently anti-Castro New Orleans "activists."

MY SAY "Frontline's" Oswald portrait has aged well, while a surgical edit hasn't hurt in any noticeable way, either.

Dedicated to Michael Sullivan, the longtime "Frontline" producer who died earlier this year and who co-produced this with William Cran, the film is a pure distillation of the true reporter's credo -- if someone tells you something, check it, then find the supporting evidence and check it again.

Dozens of key people were interviewed, including former KGB agents and officials, and the result was an ironclad antidote to Oliver Stone's big screen fabulist version that had arrived two years earlier.

Nevertheless, "Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?" still shimmers around the edges with unease and doubt. There's almost a sense that this was a rabbit hole inquiry -- for each one Sullivan goes down, he finds another one waiting for him.

Why was Oswald in Mexico City? Why did the CIA insist it had never spoken to him? Why did he make contact with Banister? Over the years, the stubborn refusal of these questions to yield answers -- as New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik recently observed of the many plot theories -- has led to "a compulsive 'hyperperspicacity' the tendency to look harder for a pattern than the thing looked at will ever provide."

Sullivan and Cran never fall into this hole, which is why the film still feels relevant. But a few updates would have still been welcome.

BOTTOM LINE Utterly absorbing, but no current scholarship reflected.

GRADE A

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