25 April 2014 | JamesHitchcock
A Secondary Character in History
If one accepts the theory of alternative universes, there must somewhere be a world in which President Kennedy was not assassinated but served two full terms in office, lived to see the end of the Cold War and died in the early years of the twenty-first century, one of America's most respected elder statesmen. His funeral was attended by former Presidents Robert Kennedy and Edward Kennedy as well as by the incumbent President John F Kennedy junior.
In this alternative world, some thriller writer or film producer might have come up with a great idea for a work of fiction. He might have called it "Fatal Deception", a not-so-subtle reference to a film called "Fatal Attraction" made a few years earlier. The plot would run as follows. During the Cold War period a former U.S. Marine with Communist sympathies defects to the Soviet Union where he marries a Russian girl, but three years later he returns to the United States. Upon his return he plans to assassinate the President.....
In our world, however, there would be just one problem with such a story. It would not be fiction but based on fact. Moreover, the precise details of the facts on which it would be based are far from clear. There are, of course, innumerable theories about the Kennedy assassination, but they essentially fall into three categories. Firstly, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating the President. Secondly, that Oswald was indeed the assassin, but acted as part of a wider conspiracy. Thirdly, that Oswald was an innocent patsy who was framed to protect the real conspirators. Those who believe Oswald was a "lone gunman" cannot agree as to his motives; those who believe in a conspiracy cannot agree as to who the conspirators were.
Oswald is the most notorious assassin of the twentieth century and yet, because of this multiplicity of conflicting viewpoints, it is always going to be difficult to make a satisfactory film about him. "Executive Action" tries to argue the "innocent patsy" theory, but never does so (in my opinion at least) with any success, partly because it ignores any evidence which might support an alternative thesis, and partly because the identity of the supposed conspirators always remains nebulous.
"Fatal Deception" tries to get round this problem by making the central character not Oswald himself but his wife. Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova is a girl from Minsk who meets a young man known only to her as "Oleg" and who speaks Russian with an accent she cannot quite place. He reveals to her that he is actually an American named Lee Harvey Oswald who has defected to the Soviet Union because of his admiration for Communism. (In the film Oswald is a fluent Russian speaker; in reality his spoken Russian seems to have been poor). The two fall in love and marry, and Marina accompanies Lee (whom she still calls "Oleg") when homesickness leads him to return to America. Their relationship is not an easy one but they remain together and have two daughters, named in the film Julie and Rachael. (In reality their names were June and Audrey). And then Marina's world falls apart when her husband is arrested and charged with the murder of the President.
She is pressured into giving evidence to the Warren Commission to the effect that her husband was the sole assassin by means of threats that her American visa will be withdrawn if she does not cooperate with the authorities. (Unlike her husband, Marina was never under any illusions about the Soviet system and had no desire to return to her homeland). She remains in America and remarries, but remains haunted by the assassination and the thought that she and "Oleg" might have been pawns in a wider conspiracy.
The trouble is that, had it not been for what her husband did, (or, if you prefer, allegedly did), Marina Oswald would never have been anything more than just another foreign-born Dallas housewife. The twentieth century's most notorious assassin (or, if you prefer, alleged assassin) is always going to be more interesting than the twentieth century's most notorious assassin's father, mother, brother, sister, Great Aunt Fannie or Second Cousin Clarence. Or even wife. Making Marina rather than Lee the focus of the film is problematic because it is Lee rather than Marina who is the focus of the audience's interest and because the questions to which the audience would like the answers are "What happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963?" and "What part did Lee play in those events?" (Not "What part did Marina play in those events?" to which the answer is clearly "None".) For the reasons I discussed above the film is never in a position to answer these questions; the shadowy conspiracy hinted at is even vaguer than the one in "Executive Action".
Helena Bonham Carter, making a determined effort to challenge Meryl Streep as Hollywood's resident foreign accent expert, does her best to bring her character to life, but the truth remains that Marina, though the primary character in the film, was a secondary character in history. 5/10