Wednesday, December 9, 2009


This landmark movie--the first to tackle this controversial issue--integrates authentic black & white newsreel footage of John F. Kennedy before and after his assassination with a dramatized conspiracy to kill the President. "Executive Action" (*** out of ****) unfolds with the following prologue:"Before his death, former President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a three hour interview to a well-known television commentator. On May 2, 1970, when the interview was shown on a national television network, it included the message that certain material had been deleted at President Johnson's insistence. It has been revealed that in the censored section, Johnson had expressed misgivings about the finding that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone, and that in fact, he (LBJ) suspected that a conspiracy had been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy." The fascinating thing about this modest little picture is that the protagonists are all villains. Typically, a hero arises to defeat the adversaries, but no hero emerges in "Executive Action." Indeed, it is interesting to speculate whether this film could not have been produced before 1973 under the inflexible Production Code Administration simply because the villains win and nobody punishes them for their horrendous crime.

Director David Miller of "Lonely Are the Brave," "The Flying Tigers," and "Billy the Kid" helmed this provocative yarn that consists ostensibly of distinguished gentlemen--Washington power brokers acting as intermediaries--who assemble behind closed doors and discuss the plan to terminate JFK with extreme prejudice. The first meeting convenes on June 5, 1963. Affluent businessmen James Farrington (Burt Lancaster of "Elmer Gantry")and Foster (Robert Ryan of "The Proud Ones")spend a third of the time trying to convince influential Southern businessman Harold Ferguson (Will Greer of CBS-TV's "The Waltons") that Kennedy has put America on the wrong course. A professor warns them about the enormous power that the Kennedy dynasty wields, and they have laid out a time table that has JFK serving two terms as President and his two brothers Robert and Teddy serving two terms. "And in each administration, the brothers who are not president will take over the most powerful cabinet posts. They have several hundred million dollars and the best brains on earth to carry them through. They have put together a powerful coalition of big city machines, labor, Negroes, Jews, and that press that will make him unbeatable in 1964." Initially Ferguson shows skepticism. He points out that Kennedy "has appointed Republicans to the Treasury, the Navy, and another is head of the CIA. His brother Bobby worked on Joe McCarthy;s committee." Finally, he observes that Kennedy's father Joseph "is farther to the right than I am." The professor states that JFK will call for a test-ban treaty with the Soviets, lead the black revolution which will trigger a white backlash and blood in the streets and withdraw from Vietnam.

Before Farrington and Foster win Ferguson over to their cause, they explain that Europeans kill heads of state with conspiracies. In America, however, lone assassins with no familiarity with firearms have consistently either killed or tried to kill Presidents. First, the conspirators design an elaborate scenario to incriminate a fall guy--Lee Harvey Oswald--as the assassin. They study Oswald's troubled history and even suspect that he has been used by intelligence outfits for his jaunts to the USSR. Second, they decide to kill Kennedy while he is riding in a motorcade. Foster explains that "motorcades are scheduled well in advance and they give you a chance to fire from cover and getaway in the confusion." Farrington states that they will use "trained, reliable professionals." He elaborates: "They only possible scenario is three rifles with triangulated gunfire. Two firing at the retreating target. The third firing as the target advances." Interspersed among these exposition heavy conference scenes are scenes of two sniper teams practicing on dummies in a car drawn through remote locations. Ed Lauter of "The Longest Yard" plays the Operations Chief of Team A, and veteran character actor Dick Miller of "The Terminator" plays one of the snipers on the B Team. Indeed, this semi-documentary approach creates some question about the findings of the Warren Report that concluded beyond a doubt that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, gunned down the President on November 22,1963.

The top-notch cast, headed by Academy Award winner Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan,and Will Greer as the conspirators, is seasoned with many familiar character actors populating the supporting roles. Producer Edward Lewis was no slouch either, having produced the volatile political thriller "Seven Days in May" with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, but the clincher is that former blacklisted Hollywood 10 scenarist Dalton Trumbo penned the script. Initially, Trumbo said that he did not believe in a conspiracy, but after he read several books on the assassination as well as the Warren Commission Report, he changed his opinion. No, "Executive Action" is not a conventional assassination thriller. Everything about it is pretty straightforward and suspense is lacking, but the audacious subject matter compensates for these departures from the norm. After all, we know that the assassins didn't miss and Kennedy died. Essentially, this is a clevely edited, quasi-documentary with a superb cast. Nevertheless, "Executive Action" did not stir up the controversy that the sensational Oliver Stone movie "JFK" with Kevin Costner generated many years later. Nonetheless, in light of everything, "Executive Action" constituted a bold move and there hasn't been a film comparable to it. Producer Edward Lewis claims that threats were made against him in an effort to dissuade him from making the picture. This was actor Robert Ryan's final film appearance. Randy Edelman wrote the haunting theme music. The film ends with the observation that an inordinate number of eye witnesses to the assassination died afterward of unusual causes. I remember seeing this movie when it came out originally in theaters.