American Assassin, the first in-depth documentary about Oswald's years in Minsk

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[American Assassin is] a joint production of Denver filmmaker Robert Bayne and Minsk Channel 8 in Belarus, the only independent broadcast TV station in that former Soviet republic. Three years in the making, the 2006 documentary is the first to delve deeply into the 2½ years Oswald spent in Minsk, Byelorussia, at the height of the Cold War. He was not yet 20 years old when he defected to the Soviet Union in September 1959, and not quite 23 when he returned to the United States, bitterly disappointed in Moscow’s applied Communism.

Bayne’s documentary is roughly the film equivalent of Norman Mailer’s 1995 book, Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery. As did Mailer, the documentary views the assassination primarily through the lens of Oswald’s sojourn in Minsk. Both emphasize and draw from, with good effect, the local KGB surveillance files on Oswald, which were exhaustive. (The publicity material accompanying the documentary states that at one point the filmmakers were threatened by the Belarusian KGB, but gives no specifics). Both interviewed Belarusians who came into contact with Oswald. In Bayne’s case, he managed a rare interview with Erich Titovyets, a medical student at the time, who became, by all accounts, Oswald’s closest friend and associate in Minsk. Bayne also managed to snag Oswald’s assigned Russian-language tutor, Stanislav Shushkevich, who just happened to become the first president of an independent Belarus (the former Byelorussia) when the Communist imperium of 15 republics fractured in 1991.

Although it’s clear the production was done on a shoe-string budget, the production values are solid if not of the highest caliber. Archival film from the late 1950s, including rare footage from the radio/TV factory where Oswald “worked” (he was a slacker) effectively transports the viewer back in time and place. The outline of the story of how Oswald navigated between the superpowers is familiar enough by now, if still somewhat incredible. A 19-year-old ex-Marine, self-taught in pidgin Russian, Oswald traveled to Moscow on a tourist visa in October 1959 and declared his allegiance to the Soviet state. Low-ranking officials took him for an intelligence operative (by 1959, Americans had long ceased coming to live in the socialist paradise) and turned him away. Oswald responded by slashing his wrist, which was enough to get the decision reversed.

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