That’s the question asked by this television film. John Pleshette plays Lee Harvey Oswald while Lorne Greene plays his attorney, Matt Weldon and Ben Gazzara plays the prosecutor, Kip Roberts. The film imagines that the trial would have been moved to a small Texas town because Oswald presumably wouldn’t have been able to get a fair trial in Dallas. While Roberts is forced to deal with his own doubts as to whether or not Oswald actually killed the President, Weldon is frustrated by Oswald’s paranoid and self-destructive behavior. Oswald insists that he’s a patsy and that he was framed by “them” but he refuses to tell Weldon who they are.
With a running time of four hours, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is a courtroom drama that tries to be fair to both sides and which ends with a frustrating cop-out. While Weldon presents all of the evidence that real-life conspiracy theorists frequently cite in their attempts to prove Oswald’s innocence, Roberts makes the case that was presented in the Warren Commission. Unfortunately, the film ends up trying too hard to avoid coming down on one side or the other and just proves that it’s impossible to be even-handed when it comes to conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination. It’s either buy into the idea that it was all a huge conspiracy involving mobsters and intelligence agents or accept that it was just Oswald doing the shooting as a lone assassin. Trying to come down in the middle, as this film does, just doesn’t work.
John Pleshette does a good job as Oswald and bears a passing resemblance to him. Because the movie refuses to take a firm stand on whether or not Oswald’s guilty, the character is written as being a cipher who claims to be innocent but who, at the same time, also refuses to take part in his defense. Pleshette plays up Oswald’s creepy arrogance, suggesting that Oswald was capable of trying to kill someone even if he didn’t actually assassinate JFK. Both Greene and Gazzara are convincing as the two opposing attorneys, even if neither one of them really does much more than offer up a surface characterization.
The majority of the movie takes place in the courtroom, with a few flashbacks to Oswald’s past included to keep things from getting too stagnant. When the film was made, people were still learning about the conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination and The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald might have had something new to tell them. Seen today, the majority of the film’s evidence seems like old news. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald never escapes the shadow of later films, like Oliver Stone’s JFK.
It’s hard not to regret that The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t willing to come definitively down on one side or the other. Instead, it ends by telling us that we’re the jury and that the only verdict that matters is that one that we come up with. They could have just told us that at the start of the movie and saved us all four hours.