The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has spawned innumerable conspiracy theories over the past fifty years, the most famous cinematic contribution to the inundation certainly being Oliver Stone’s 1991 “JFK,” which—for good or ill—continues to color what many Americans think about the tragedy. Stephen Goetsch’s documentary “A Coup in Camelot” won’t come close to matching that picture’s influence, but it will prove of interest to those who are dismissive of the Warren Commission’s findings and look for reasons for skepticism about the official lone-gunman account.
From a technical perspective, Goetsch has done a solid, professional job. He and co-editor John W. Griffiths have stitched together the material—archival footage, stills, excerpts from newly-filmed interviews and graphics—nicely, making for a smooth (though episodic) presentation. And the narration is by Peter Coyote, a specialist at the task, whose delivers the script written by Art Van Kampen with admirable sobriety. The interviewees, moreover, are an articulate group who present their points of view with restraint—and, at least if one accepts the film’s identifications of them, are well-credentialed as well.
But the content—the argument—is nonetheless incendiary, sharing a good deal of its thesis with Stone’s film (and with the earlier “Executive Action”). As the title suggests, it charges that what happened in Dallas represented a coup d’etat, conducted by elements of the government itself, out of concern over Kennedy’s apparent decision to draw down American forces in Vietnam—something alluded to at the very start of the film. The first group indicted is the Secret Service, which, it’s argued, violated its own protocols in terms of the lax security it provided for Kennedy—and implies that it did so deliberately. (Much of this section depends on the research of Vince Palamara, who authored a book on the subject, though writer Van Kampen appears periodically to emphasize points made by him and the other interviewees.)
Then the film goes on to investigate the “magic bullet” theory, largely on the testimony of forensics expert Sherry Feister, who contends that Kennedy was shot not from the Texas School Depository to the rear, but from the front, and specifically a place on the Elm Street overpass (rather than the notorious grassy knoll). This naturally leads to a discussion of whether Lee Harvey Oswald was a patsy whose murder by Jack Ruby was designed to cover up the truth, matters that are among those discussed by Douglas Horne, a member of the Assassination Records Review Board. Questions are then raised, particularly by David Mantik, about the “chain of custody” of the president’s body from Dallas to Washington and manipulation of the autopsy photos by two Navy doctors to disguise the front entrance wounds.
The film closes by returning to the suggestion that the assassination was plotted by elements within the government in response to Kennedy’s decisions regarding Vietnam; it pointedly emphasizes President Johnson’s actions, beginning shortly after Kennedy’s death, to bolster rather than reduce US troop levels in Southeast Asia, and goes on to note how many American firms were invested deeply in the American war effort there, standing to profit substantially from continuing it. In effect, it intimates that the assassination was plotted by what President Eisenhower might have called the military-industrial complex, and that Johnson was part of it (a suggestion that goes back as far as Barbara Garson’s infamous 1967 off-Broadway play “MacBird”).
It has to be said that “A Coup in Camelot” raises some provocative questions in a cinematically effective way. But it must also be noted that it does so in a completely one-sided fashion, taking as a given that it has proven each of the positions it declares without offering any rebuttal time to those who would dispute them. As such it will doubtlessly appeal primarily to those already inclined to be skeptical of the official assassination account, and despite its subdued tone will likely be dismissed outright by many others as sensationalist. But if it preaches mainly to the choir, it does so skillfully.