Friday, February 1, 2013

Executive Action (1973)

          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


Joe Martino said...

Glad to see some love for this flick...I saw it in the theaters as a teenager and found it gripping, and have watched it several times over the years and it holds up incredibly well...the title card fade out is very powerful.

I grew up in the New York area and there was great controvery about the netwroks refusing to run the commercials for the film. Only a local station WWOR had the guts to run them.

Jack (LJCSOGHMOMAS) said...

Haven't seen this film in ages. Interesting chain of events around this time: this film was made in '73, in '75 the Zapruder film was shown on television for the first time, and a year later Congress re-opened the investigation into the JFK assassination.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"The movie is based on a book by inveterate conspiracy theorists Donald Freed and Mark Lane."

Freed and Lane are only credited in the film for its story. They did not author a novel about the assassination. A paperback novelization of the film was published by Dell in 1974, but I doubt either man wrote it: Lane's several books about the case are all nonfiction.

Mike Doran said...

Am I the only one who noticed that Robert Ryan's mansion here was the same one that the Batman tv series used as "Stately Wayne Manor"?