To say that Executive Action has credibility problems is an understatement, because the picture offers a possible “explanation” for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that refutes the “lone gunman” hypothesis of the Warren Commission. (The movie is based on a scenario by inveterate conspiracy theorists Donald Freed and Mark Lane.) While there’s a chance the scenario outlined in Executive Action is something like the truth, history has yet to offer definitive validation of the picture’s guesswork. Compounding the credibility issue, the film’s storytelling is unusual, because instead of unfolding as a straightforward dramatic narrative, the picture features a combination of historical re-enactments, newsreel footage, and very long dialogue scenes, during which conspirators debate the pros and cons of killing Kennedy. Yet even though Executive Action is a bumpy ride, it’s fascinating.
The movie focuses on the dynamic between Texas millionaires Foster (Robert Ryan), the prime mover behind the assassination plot, and Ferguson (Will Geer), a skeptical would-be financial backer. With the aid of covert-ops guy Farrington (Burt Lancaster), Foster tries to persuade Ferguson that taking out JFK will advance an insidious right-wing agenda. Foster describes a future in which JFK’s humanistic policies will thaw the Cold War and expand the rights of minorities and the working class, resulting in a world that power-mongers like Foster and Ferguson cannot control. Meanwhile, Farrington explains the mechanics he’ll use if the plan is authorized—he will frame Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy and set up triangulated gunfire ensuring that JFK is killed.
Even for viewers who don’t buy into the film’s most outlandish notions, it’s disturbing to watch men plan a murder like it’s just another item on their corporate agenda; the conspirators’ calmness is chilling. Amid the few snippets of action that break up the dialogue scenes, the most riveting sequence is probably an extended vignette set at a remote training facility. Gunmen led by an icy ex-military shooter (Ed Lauter) create a mock-up of Dealey Plaza and run a remote-controlled limo through a crossfire pattern to practice their assassination techniques. Executive Action springs to life during this sequence because of how vividly the film imagines what might have happened.
Interestingly, the film’s director, David Miller, began his career making documentaries, and it’s easy to see traces of nonfiction storytelling in the methodical quality of Executive Action. Plus, beyond its historical status as one of the first films to question the official story about JFK’s death, Executive Action is noteworthy as the second and last project involving both Miller and legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo; they previously worked on the great modern-day Western Lonely Are the Brave (1962).
Executive Action: GROOVY