RFK Must Die is Shane O'Sullivan's new documentary on the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The film, just released on DVD, takes its title from Robert Blair Kaiser's 1970 book on the case. In almost every major aspect it is a one-man show: O'Sullivan wrote, produced, and directed it. He also narrates it, which is the first of some poor choices, since his voice carries a high-pitched Irish lilt.
The film is divided into four sections: The Last Campaign, The Investigation, The Manchurian Candidate, and Did the CIA Kill RFK? Before getting to its negatives, let me list what I see as the film's attributes. Some of the interview subjects, to my knowledge, appear for the first time. Sandra Serrano, the first witness to publicly discuss the famous Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, makes her first appearance on camera in decades. Sirhan's brother Munir and controversial defense investigator Michael McGowan also appear. And O'Sullivan has unearthed some interesting Ambassador Hotel kitchen pantry photos, which appear to show that someone was digging bullets out of the walls. This would indicate that there were more than eight bullets-the limit of Sirhan's revolver-fired the night of the assassination.
Vincent DiPierro, a part-time waiter at the Ambassador at the time of the assassination, is also interviewed. He reveals that there was a bullet hole in his sweater that night. Any one bullet found anywhere in the pantry would indicate more than eight bullets were fired, and in turn would mean a second gun was firing.
O'Sullivan has arranged for that illustrious expert on hypnosis, Herbert Spiegel, to appear on camera. And Spiegel shows us a taped example of him hypnotizing someone, planting a post hypnotic suggestion in that person, waking him from the trance state, and then not having him recall anything he did while under hypnosis. Which is very likely what happened to Sirhan.
But sad to say, for anyone familiar with the Robert Kennedy assassination, that is about it for the virtues of RFK Must Die. Aesthetically speaking, the film is very simple, straightforward, and, to be frank, kind of dull. I have much more sympathy for O'Sullivan's views on the RFK case than I did for those of Robert Stone, director of the Warren Commission-apologist Oswald's Ghost. But technique wise, Stone leaves O'Sullivan in the dust.
We live in an age where the documentary form has risen to a truly imaginative level of aesthetic approach. This is exemplified by works like Brett Morgan's and Nan Burstein's The Kid Stays in the Picture, and Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares. I would say that technically and aesthetically, O'Sullivan's film is a notch or two above sixties pioneers like Emile de Antonio and the Maysles Brothers. This is saying something, of course, since computer graphics now can be done on line and then switched over to digital video, and at a reasonable price. It would seem to me that from my two viewings of the film, O'Sullivan availed himself of very little of these new technologies.
Even this would not be so bad if O'Sullivan had any kind of pictorial eye or sensitivity to things like sound and montage to give the film any kind of distinction of form. But if you take a look at the compositions in the interview shots with, say, Robert Blair Kaiser or Vincent DiPierro, you will see the work of a not very gifted amateur. And the use of sound in those shots is equally revealing. O'Sullivan includes himself, either off screen or back to camera in the on-screen dialogue, usually an unwise practice. But this is made even worse since those scenes were not properly wired for sound. So his voice comes in decibels lower and he is harder to hear than the subject.
I would have been willing to forgive most of the above if the content of the film had some real howitzers in it. For example, the Discovery Times special on the RFK case was not done at a much higher technical level than this was. But it had some pieces of information in it that were new, quite relevant, and which the film used with real force. That cannot be said about this current effort. What can one write about a full-length documentary on the RFK case which does not mention the name of infamous LAPD firearms expert, DeWayne Wolfer?
If that's not enough for you, the film fails to mention William Harper. Without Harper there may never have been any critical movement in the RFK case. (For those not familiar with the RFK case, this would be like doing a documentary on the JFK case and leaving out both Mark Lane and Arlen Specter.) There is no mention or interview of Scott Enyart, either. Enyart was the high school photographer who was at the Ambassador Hotel the night of the assassination. He took photos in the pantry while RFK was being shot. Years later he asked to get his pictures back. He never did. In 1996 he ended up suing the LAPD. (See Probe Vol. 4 #1 and #2) He actually won the case in court. Some extraordinary things happened at the trial. New testimony emerged about how the LAPD actually destroyed Scott's film. About how the LAPD had falsely numbered pieces of evidence in the Sirhan trial exhibit log to hide exculpatory evidence. That even as late as 1995, bullet evidence was being tampered with at the Sacramento Archives. (For actual photo documentation of this tampering see Probe Vol. 5 #3, p. 27.)
In 1998, Lisa Pease wrote a fine two-part essay on the case. (Probe Vol. 5 #3 and #4). This article is one of the three best long essays on the RFK case that I know. (The other two were by Ted Charach and the late Greg Stone.) In this work, Pease revealed even more mishandling of the evidence. Namely that bullet fragments left the property room of the LAPD and went to a special agent of the FBI for approximately eight days before being returned to Wolfer. And at the instance of their return, Wolfer had them cleaned and photographed for the first time. Why did they leave and what happened to them in FBI custody? Why were no shells from the gun in evidence recovered from the shooting range Sirhan was reported at on 6/4/68? Even though the LAPD recovered over 38, 000 shell casings from the range!
In her article, Pease incorporated some key findings from Sirhan's former investigator Lynn Mangan, such as the photographic fakery of Special Exhibit 10. This photo allegedly reveals a comparison of an RFK bullet with a test bullet form Sirhan's gun. In fact, the comparison is actually with a bullet from another victim, Ira Goldstein, not RFK. Which leaves the question: Could the LAPD not get a positive comparison with Sirhan's gun and an RFK bullet? Her article also showed a fascinating connection between the mysterious Iranian intelligence agent Khaiber Khan and the man who was probably the third gun in the pantry that night, Michael Wayne.
Now all of the above is not meant to (solely) show how proficient Probe was in covering the RFK case. But it is to indicate just how much is lacking from this new documentary. And in addition to not interviewing Scott Enyart, there is no interview with Dr. Thomas Noguchi. In fact, I don't even recall his photo being used. This is the man who, according to Allard Lowenstein, made the earth move under the RFK case when his autopsy results were finally made public.
What does O'Sullivan offer us instead? Well, he gives us living room reconstructions of the assassination with DiPierro and Kennedy aide Kenny Burns. Yet with only one camera on hand, and shot from ground level, I did not find these very illuminating. To illustrate the illogic of Wolfer's eight bullet scenario in the pantry, O'Sullivan pans his camera over the LAPD schematic of the bullet trajectories. In 1993, when Tim Tate did his excellent documentary on the RFK case for British television, he used a very clear and dynamic computer graphic for this demonstration. When O'Sullivan plays the tape of the infamous Serrano/Hank Hernandez polygraph interview, he puts it against a rather static background of still photos of the pair. When Tate did this, he showed us a tape recorder only, against a black backdrop with the words flashing on the screen. And the sound was well modulated to catch the incredible harshness, almost brutality of the session. And the excerpts he picked were better chosen to illustrate that brutality.
O'Sullivan spends a lot of time on the Manchurian Candidate aspect of the case. Some of it is good, but I think he should have spent less time interviewing Spiegel, playing the Sirhan hypnosis tapes, and trying to simulate Sirhan's walk from the coffee table to the pantry (which does not work very well anyway). What I think would have been better was to trace, with documents, how the CIA developed the program in the first place, how it was kept secret, who destroyed the documentary record, and how certain documents point to the exact circumstances which insinuate Sirhan in this crime. And the guy to interview for that would have been either Walter Bowart (Operation Mind Control) or John Marks (The Search for the Manchurian Candidate.)
And this would have been, I think, a better conclusion for the film than what O'Sullivan has decided to end it with. He largely repeats what he did for the BBC many months ago, namely, the alleged identification of three CIA officers at the Ambassador Hotel the night of the RFK murder: George Johannides, Gordon Campbell, and, of course Dave Morales. The accent on this Morales story first began in 1993 with Gaeton Fonzi's book, The Last Investigation. There the clinching quote, through Morales' attorney Robert Walton, was this: "Well, we took care of that son of a bitch, didn't we?" (p. 390)
Please note this quote does not necessarily imply that Morales was part of the plot to kill President Kennedy, or that he even had first hand knowledge of it. What it does imply is that Morales knew people who told him they were involved. But now, through David Talbot's book Brothers and this documentary, the quote has been embellished and expanded in both specificity and quantity. In its current version Walton quotes Morales thusly: "I was in Dallas when we got that mother fucker, and I was in Los Angeles when we got the little bastard." [Emphasis added.] Hmm. From Fonzi's version in 1993 and hearing about one assassination, now Morales is actually in on both of them. With the way things grow in the JFK case -- which is where Morales originated -- what will be next? How about: "I was in Memphis when we got that Black Messiah King!"
In addition to the enlargement of the quote, the photo identifications themselves are also weakened. Talbot discovered two photos of Morales, one from 1967, and one from 1969. They do not closely resemble the man alleged to be Morales in the films from the Ambassador. As for the ID's of Campbell and Johannides, O'Sullivan reveals that the LAPD identified the two men as, respectively, Michael Roman and Frank Owens. They were both executives for Bulova watch company. Although both are dead today, Roman's family concurred with the identification, and knew who Owens was. O'Sullivan tries to salvage something from this by saying that Bulova was a recipient of a large amount of Pentagon funding during the sixties. And further that its chairman, Omar Bradley, was a special adviser to Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War. He even reaches for the theory that Roman and Campbell may have somehow switched identities. As a fallback, salvage type operation I found this all pretty lame and unsubstantiated.
So overall, the film is a sad and puzzling disappointment. It could and should have been much better. Considering the state of knowledge in the case, and the state of computer technology, it should have been compelling in form and convincing in content. Unfortunately, it is neither.