Through a Lens, Clearly: Randy Benson’s The Searchers
Since President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, many films have attempted to document that horrific event and unearth its meaning. The first one, of course, was filmed by Abraham Zapruder, held in place by his secretary on his famous perch in Dealey Plaza. The initial 12 year public disappearance of Zapruder’s original home movie also marked the beginning of the federal government’s attempts to cover up the true facts about the case. In addition to hiding evidence, and ignoring (and in some cases, perhaps eliminating) key witnesses, the CIA literally invented the term “conspiracy theorist” to attack those who disagreed with the official investigation. In spite of all this, there has been a modest stream of credible films and features over the last fifty-four years.
One of the earliest, Rush to Judgment, featuring Mark Lane and directed by Emile de Antonio, appeared in 1967 and continues to be one of the better films ever made on the case. It contains some of the earliest interviews ever obtained. But these kinds of efforts have been opposed, and sometimes drowned out, by the less honorable efforts of the mainstream media on the JFK case. The major media has done a generally awful job of even reasonably objective reporting, much less showing commitment to the truth. CBS broadcast a special in 1964, on the day the Warren Report was released—without telling the public how they could possibly do that unless they knew the results well in advance. And they then agreed to go along with them without any independent analysis.
Then, in 1967, NBC produced an infamously slanted ‘special report’ on Jim Garrison’s investigation. That hatchet job was produced by former NSA counter-intelligence chief Walter Sheridan. It was done with permission from corporate headquarters in New York to, literally, “shoot him down.” (Destiny Betrayed, by James DiEugenio, Second Edition, p. 239) Sheridan literally surveilled and harassed witnesses in order to get them to change their stories from what they had originally told Jim Garrison. They then put these witnesses on the air without telling the viewer what they had done.
Like Old Reliable, CBS would then produce one special in 1967, and another one in 1975; the latter was designed to defuse interest in the Church Committee. With the help of memoranda obtained by the late CBS employee Roger Feinman, Jim DiEugenio has carved these productions up and shown how fundamentally dishonest they were. For instance, Dick Salant, president of CBS, beat back an attempt by his employees—e.g. Daniel Schorr and Les Midgley—to do a fair minded, probing program. By pulling rank, Salant turned the fair-minded proposal into a one-sided defense for the Warren Report. CBS then hired compromised “experts”, like urologist John Lattimer and Dallas Policeman Jerry Hill, as their consultants to make sure that is what the program ended up as (Click here https://kennedysandking.com/john-f-kennedy-articles/why-cbs-covered-up-the-jfk-assassination)
In 1986 Vincent Bugliosi prevailed in a ridiculous “show trial” in London over an unprepared Gerry Spence. That program was later broadcast in America on Showtime. Later network productions have been as bad. In 2003, Peter Jennings hosted Beyond Conspiracy for ABC, another inane effort. That one featured the notorious duo of Gus Russo and Dale Myers. The latter helped bring us the hilarious spectacle of ABC proclaiming the Single Bullet Theory, as the Single Bullet Fact, all done by the alchemy of Myers’ computer graphics. (Click here for more on Myers https://kennedysandking.com/john-f-kennedy-articles/dale-myers-an-introduction)
More recent years have brought about the (now deceased) Gary Mack-assisted Inside the Target Car; Oswald’s Ghost from PBS, directed by a man who had a spiritual awakening that told him Oswald was guilty; JFK: The Lost Bullet, in which Max Holland claimed he could see Oswald walking by on the Sixth Floor; and JFK: The Smoking Gun, in which an Australian detective tries to sell us on George Hickey having fired the fatal shot into JFK. The common thread in all these films is they either support a lone nut verdict or try to “solve the case” in such a way as to let the government off the hook.
|Filmmaker Randy Benson|
Randy Benson’s The Searchers is not one of those films. Instead, his film takes two essential tracks—on the one hand, providing a brief history of the state of the case over the last fifty years, and on the other, filling out portraits of the men and women who provided most of the breakthroughs—the “searchers” of the title. For the former track, he uses some milestones in the history of the JFK case. For example, the Garrison inquiry, the convening of the House Select Committee on Assassinations because of the 1975 broadcast of the Zapruder film on ABC, and the 1991 release of Oliver Stone’s film JFK.
The other track Benson pursues is rather bracing in its simplicity. From about 1966, it became the strategy of the MSM not to let the Warren Commission critics speak without being interfered with, or caricatured. After Stone’s movie came out, provoking a year long firestorm, that was changed. Now the MSM simply would not place the critics on their programs at all.
Benson counters that by simply letting the critics speak about the case without being interfered with. People like Gary Aguilar, Debra Conway, and Lisa Pease simply answer questions or address issues. And once the viewer sees this, he or she understands why it’s not done. Because without the interference, or the caricaturing, the critics would carry the day. Simply based on the strength of their arguments and their in-depth knowledge of the JFK case. Because of media censorship, these are aspects of the case that the public is not allowed to see today, but which Benson munificently supplies.
In a more perfect world, it is the sort of film that would have been done long ago by PBS, with a substantial budget and a major release. But as we know from their Gus Russo/Dale Myers 1993 fiasco Who was Lee Harvey Oswald?, PBS is part of the MSM on this case. Instead, mirroring the struggle of the researchers, this film arrives after a fourteen-year odyssey largely by one man—Benson—and unfortunately after the deaths of two of the participants, John Judge and Mark Lane.
The great achievement of the film is to humanize the researchers themselves. After years of being portrayed as kooks (or worse, as in Larry Schiller’s book The Scavengers and Critics of the Warren Report), here is a film that depicts them as they are. The earliest researchers were not themselves part of any government tribunal; instead, they were people who had to be coaxed away from their trust in the federal government. They were not born anarchists or people in search of fame, or money. They were housewives, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and professionals, who found—much to their chagrin—that the government was lying, and over the matter of a murdered president, they would not stand for it. The Warren Commission never thought anyone would read their 26 volumes of evidence. Surely, the reporters of the MSM did not. Or how could they issue their kudos about the Warren Report in September when the 26 volumes of evidence were not issued until October? But some interested parties did read the 26 volumes. And they noticed that the evidence in the volumes did not support the conclusions in the Warren Report. Once they took that stand based on the evidence, people like Shirley Martin, Vincent Salandria, Penn Jones, Sylvia Meagher, Mae Brussell, and Harold Weisberg simply couldn’t let it go. And it is to their credit that they did not.
Unfortunately, while these folks were unavailable to interview (all but Salandria are now deceased, but John Kelin ably fills in some of the details on their backgrounds), the interviews that were obtained for the film are formidable. Crosscut throughout the documentary are insights from Mark Lane, John Judge, Robert Groden, Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Gary Aguilar, Jim DiEugenio, Lisa Pease, Jim Marrs, Josiah Thompson, Rex Bradford, Walt Brown, and Debra Conway. And because Benson was able to shoot most of these interviews on-location with the researchers, we get to see them in contexts we might otherwise not see them. At home with Mark Lane, showing us his personal copy of the Warren volumes, or in the garage with Tink Thompson tinkering with his motorcycle, or watching Robert Groden age over the years as we see the famous footage from the 1975 Geraldo Rivera program with Dick Gregory—right up to the present as he greets people on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza.
Another great strength of the film is that it is made for an audience that is not necessarily expert in all things JFK. The director made it, in his words, for “himself, before I got into all this.” In other words, he was a person who thought of himself as informed, college-educated, granted many benefits in this society, but unaware of the real history that lies underneath what is called history. We see that play out, in rough chronological order, but instead of hearing from established media, we see that history through the eyes of real historians like Judge and DiEugenio.
At the same time, there is little attention paid to some of the great schisms that have occurred in the research community—for example, the question of the Zapruder film’s authenticity—instead focusing on the great areas of agreement between researchers. The great majority of us know that Oswald didn’t do it, and that the cover-up could only have been performed by those in positions of great power. We might argue about who that might be, but we all agree on most of the basics. It is to this majority to which this film speaks. And it makes heroes out of the ordinary men and women who chose to devote their lives to this mostly thankless duty. If they had been listened to instead of marginalized and caricatured, America might not be in the situation that it is in today.
The latest election in the United States has revealed, more than ever before, the deep-set corruption in both our government, and our media. In a stunning turn of events, we have elected a person who is as far away from John Kennedy as one could imagine. It’s worth reflecting, for a moment, what we once had, and what we have now. For all intents and purposes, the assassination of President Kennedy began our long national nightmare, and Donald Trump seems to be only the latest chapter. This is a time when we need to look to each other and find spaces of agreement, rather than conflict, and it seems to me The Searchers aids that end.
If The Searchers has a central thesis, it would seem to be that, on complex cases, the best work is often done by ordinary people with an extraordinary tenacity to get at the truth. Where the government has failed us, where official investigations have failed us, we might succeed. In this new age of friendly fascism, each other might be all we’ve got.
The Searchers is currently available for purchase in a DVD edition for researchers that includes 37 hours of full interviews with all of the researchers in the movie.