Read Zac Thompson's review of Assassination Theater here.
Hillel Levin says he knows who killed John F. Kennedy.
And it wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald, or any other deranged loner.
Not LBJ or the CIA either. Not Russia.
The culprit was—and is—much closer to home. In fact, says Levin, the shooter, James Files, has been cooling his heels for years in an Illinois prison. You can find him there today, serving a 50-year sentence for the attempted murder of two police officers—a cog in the once mighty Chicago mob that, according to Levin, took down Jack to get Bobby Kennedy off their backs.
And then successfully pulled off the world's most improbable cover-up, with the unwitting help of two presidents and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
A former top editor and chief operating officer at Chicago magazine, Levin's a seasoned author and investigative reporter with a nose for the kind of true-crime stories that get noticed in Hollywood. A 2007 Playboy magazine story of his, about a burglary at the River Forest home of Chicago outfit boss Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo by two small-time crooks who subsequently turned up dead, is one of several that have been optioned for film.
But getting movies made "takes forever—if ever," Levin said in an interview earlier this year. In the meantime, he's spent seven years following a trail that opened to him as a result of the Accardo burglary story. And he's serving up the results in what he calls an "investigative theatrical production."
Assassination Theater, now in a run at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, is a provocative multimedia history lesson dressed up as a docudrama. An engrossing, rapid-fire exposé of "Chicago's role in the crime of the century," with tourist-attraction aspirations, it seeks to build on the dicey thing our city's best known for but usually tries to ditch—its legendary status as a hub of organized crime.
What Levin says he's dealing with, however, is fact, not legend.
Assassination Theater is the story of what he learned about JFK's murder, with himself (played with a winning light touch by Michael Joseph Mitchell) as one of two central characters, and his guide, retired FBI agent Zechariah Shelton (played by Mark Ulrich), as the other. Two other actors take on multiple roles, jumping in and out of the skin of everyone from LBJ to Jack Ruby. Directed at a blistering pace by Kevin Christopher Fox, it manages to dance on the edge of both melodrama and camp without quite toppling in. But here's the most important thing: there's a roster of resources in the program, including Assassination Theater's own website, where you'll find a link to a complete list of Levin's sources. He invites—no, challenges—you to follow him down the rabbit hole.
Levin was pulled in himself by a call from Shelton, who'd read the 2007 article and told him, "Now you have to do the real story about the mob.'"
"I said, 'What do you mean?'" Levin recalls.
"And he said, 'How they killed JFK.'"
Levin says he could understand the motive Shelton advanced. Bobby Kennedy was making organized crime his "signature issue," going after the mob and its union ties (especially to Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters), which meant he was also going after the mob's "bank." But he was "totally taken aback" when Shelton told him he'd "blundered onto this individual, who claimed that he was the one who shot the fatal bullet, from the grassy knoll."
"I had dismissed the grassy knoll," Levin says. "But in fact, if you look at the evidence, at the testimony taken by the Warren Commission, of the 158 witnesses, more say [a shot was taken from] the grassy knoll, than [from] the book depository."
"I think they have very artfully made anyone who questions the lone assassin into a crackpot," he adds. "But when you actually look at [all the] information, you see that it's quite the opposite. You have to be a little nuts to believe what they came up with. Because it just does not make sense."
Guessing he wasn't the only one who'd stumbled onto information that had been stifled, Shelton began interviewing other agents, turning up abundant indications that the single-shooter explanation embraced by the Warren Commission was wrong. A torrent of that data is presented in Assassination Theater. But why in theatrical form?
"The central conceit here," says Levin, "is that it was theater. It was a very carefully staged production that put the blame on one actor, who was, in fact, part of a much bigger production." v