The title of Dutch documentary filmmaker Kasper Verkaik’s 60-minute film, Plaza Man, is a reference to Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist Robert Groden, the guy who sells books and DVDs every fine weekend at Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas.
But the Kennedy assassination, the conspiracy theories, even Groden’s long-running battle with “The Sixth Floor,” the city’s gingerly named assassination museum at Dealey Plaza, those are not what the movie is about. Those things appear in the film but only as bit players. The film really is an exploration of obsession.
Groden, who had been a New York Times best-selling author, consultant to a congressional investigative panel and to Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK, left his wife and children in Pennsylvania 20 years ago to come stand on a hill in Dallas and preach what he believes to be the truth about the Kennedy assassination, making a buck here and there along the way, peddling his wares from a table in the plaza.
He left his wife after she learned she had cancer. He missed the entire childhoods of his two sons. He lives here in what is from the outside a deceptively bland suburban home. On the inside it’s a dark, chaotic, cavernous archive of assassination evidence, snow-drifted with files and books, with only enough room left open for him to eat fast-food alone standing by the sink.
When he was still at home he told his young boys they should assume the family phones were tapped. A suspected insurance arson next door to their house was really a fire-bomb intended for them, he told the family.
And yet both sons, adults now, speak persuasively in the film of their love for their father, the glamour of going as boys to the set of JFK with him, and, most touchingly, of their sincere admiration for his dedication to his cause, even now.
One son reveals that it was their mother, who had sat by Groden’s side in congressional hearings and stage-prompted him with details he couldn’t remember, who sent him away to Dallas after her cancer was found.
And by then in Verkaik’s film, you totally get it, if you’ve been paying attention. Of course the poor woman told him to go to Dallas. She had cancer to fight, and he had exhausted her. In fact who could really live with Robert Groden’s intense and unyielding obsessive dedication to a single murder in history?
But that’s still not the crux of the film. That it was his wife who made him go, that this man who left his family in time of need is still loved, respected and admired by his sons; these actually are among the more modest surprises in Verkaik’s film. The big one, the one that’s most difficult to grasp, is that Groden is not nuts.
He’s not normal. He’s not you or me. Well, let’s say for sure he’s not you. But he’s not crazy.
Verkaik explores just enough of Groden’s evidence to persuade the audience that Groden has credible reasons for believing there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 and that multiple persons were involved. At no point does the film try to argue that any of that is true. Instead Verkaik shows the viewer why Groden thinks it’s true and why Groden is not crazy to believe what he believes.
And here is the real fascination of this film. It’s just not that simple. It’s not as easy as dismissing Groden as a nutcase. He’s weird. He’s way unusual. He’s obsessive as hell. But how do we know — Do we know? — that obsession is automatically or always wrong or destructive? What if he’s right?
The film probably wouldn’t even be interesting if it were not for its subtly textured portrayal of Groden, the man. Verkaik saw in him a bright, charming man whose easy-going diffidence is interrupted by flashes of defensive bad temper, a person who comes across as erudite and professorial one moment, street roguish the next, but who is always compelling, always interesting, never tiresome in the way crazy people become tiresome early in a conversation.
And there’s the dilemma. Because he is charming, credible and really smart, we can’t banish him from our thoughts with an easy dismissal. I mean, look, even his own sons whom he abandoned in childhood won’t do that. So who are we to write him off?
Verkaik does portray the vicious war waged on Groden over the years by the Sixth Floor Museum, which has cooperated with police in jailing him and writing more than 80 violations for selling his wares in Dealey Plaza, all of which were thrown out as illegal by the courts. Verkaik portrays the massive public relations effort put on by the city during the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 2013, which was an attempt to douse and wash away all of the conspiracy theories forever.
But even in those events or controversies, I didn’t get the feeling the filmmaker was taking sides. The documentary operates at a deeper level than that.
For now, you can’t see Plaza Man in this country, even though it has been accepted, awarded and given rave reviews at film festivals in Europe. Festivals and distributors in this country have taken a pass.
Having worked on small assassination-related stories and book proposals, none successful, myself over the years — peripheral things, nibbling around the edges — I think I can see why festivals and distributors here would have trouble with this film.
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It doesn’t even try to say who shot Kennedy. The American audience wants that answer and isn’t going to wade through a bunch of psychology and character development to find out. More than a half century later, we still have no distance from the event. In fact, isn’t that interesting? Is it Groden? Or us? Who is obsessed?
In a haunting closing scene we watch Robert Groden disappear into deep shadows in a grocery store parking lot at night, his cart loaded with fast food, and we see how his cause has taken him into a deep solitude, as if he were a tethered astronaut staring back at Earth from outer space.
I don’t know how anybody else will take it, but as the film closed I felt a profound respect for the man. Instead of plaguing him with tickets and arrests, we ought to put a statute of Robert Groden on the grassy knoll.
He is Quixote. Yes, the Quixote of literature, too, is a mess and leaves a trail of damaged hearts behind. But he is Quixote.