Dead On

It is a decade ago, and Neil Burger has trekked from New York to the small Texas town of Fredericksburg, where Admiral Chester Nimitz was born, where heroes gather at the National Museum of the Pacific War to reminisce and mourn, where tourists collect to pay their dues to the dead. Burger, a young man fresh out of Yale, is there to gather the stories of World War II fighter pilots, and he's starting to wonder if he's in over his head; he's a filmmaker, not a stenographer with a camera. He reminds himself to just get the job done and get out of town without botching it. He's thinking this one night as he's sitting at a bar, when an old man sitting on a nearby stool asks the kid what he's doing there. He tells him he's a reporter--not the truth, but close enough to smell its breath. The man tells Burger, "Well, I have the story of the century."

The old man keeps on talking, keeps insisting he was in possession of the "story that'll blow everything away, blow the lid off of everything." Only after what feels like an eternity does the old man tell him what he's going on about: "I know somebody who was involved with the assassination of President Kennedy," he says, sounding very much like someone telling the truth.

"And it was an incredible thing to hear," Burger recounts now. "I asked him a few questions, but he wouldn't talk, in that very strange way of people just not answering you and turning away or looking away like he's not hearing me. Finally he got up, I presume to go to the bathroom, and he never came back."

Burger didn't believe the old man. Who would? Crazy shit like that happens every day: some crank insisting he knew someone who was in Dallas on November 22, 1963; some kook who knew the guy who did the shooting; some nut who says, hell, he did it. But Burger couldn't shake it. It was a haunting encounter. No way he was telling the truth. But...what if?

It is now 2002, and making its way through the film-festival circuit is Burger's movie about the man who really killed John Kennedy. His name is Walter Ohlinger, a former Marine sniper who insists he was the grassy knoll gunman, the real assassin. Not a "scapegoat" like that "idiot" Oswald, but a man proud to have Kennedy's blood on his hands. "Killing someone's easy," says Ohlinger, speaking to the camera that never takes its shaky, unblinking eye off him for 85 minutes. "The trick is getting away."

And he did get away and get away with it, till last year, when a dying Ohlinger, his body rotten with cancer, decided to confide in Ron Kobeleski, an out-of-work San Bernadino, California, TV-news cameraman who lived across the street. Ohlinger had proof, the spent shell, and named names, among them John Seymour, his commanding officer in the Marines who recruited him for the killing. Ohlinger had no idea why Seymour wanted Kennedy dead, and he did not care.

"People wanted him out for good reason, and I got him out," Ohlinger drones in the documentary, titled Interview with the Assassin. "I was a hotshot back then, a sick fuck...You kill the most powerful man in the world, I'd say that makes you the most powerful, don't you think? I was ready for that." Ohlinger spends the entirety of Interview with the Assassin trying to prove to Kobeleski he did in fact pull the trigger: They buy guns, meet with old soldiers, tangle with shadowy figures who may be on their trail, meet up 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; if he didn't kill Kennedy, he surely killed someone.

Only, Walter Ohlinger does not exist; he is played by a character actor named Raymond Barry, who has appeared in such films as The Ref and Training Day. Ron Kobeleski likewise is a figment of Neil Burger's imagination, played by actor Dylan Haggerty. And Burger's documentary is entirely a work of fiction, despite bearing all the trademarks of cinema vérité--the shaky handheld digital camerawork, the sketchy sound, the stammering speech patterns of everyday chitchat. Ten years after Burger met his man in Texas, he made him real--real enough, that is, to confound even those who know Interview with the Assassin is totally make-believe.

"I have conversations with people who have seen the film," Burger says. "I tell them it's fiction, and they say, 'Yeah, but he's the real guy, right?' I say, 'No, he's an actor.' They'll say, 'Yeah, but that's what happened, right?' And I say, 'No, it's fake.' But people hold on to the idea of it or are unwilling to let go of that, which is great, because I think there's a certain energy and experience that you get from the movie because of that, and it backs up what the movie's about."