Being a connoisseur of all things conspiracy, mainly anything having to do with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I was shocked that I had not heard of the film Executive Action until about five minutes before I watched it earlier this evening. Wanting to pass the time, I decided to give it a go, assuming it would probably go along the lines of The Parallax View, which came out a year later and depicted the assassination of a United States senator at the hands of a multinational corporation, with many similarities between that and the JFK assassination. However, what we have here is an actual telling of a conspiracy to kill the president, one that the opening credits notes is fictitious, but whose speculation is based in fact. The truth is, this is a 1970’s version of Oliver Stone’s JFK, as it expertly combines actual footage of Kennedy, Oswald, and other various people and events throughout the story, both through color and black-and-white photography. The end result is not as stunning as Stone’s work, but it is, perhaps, even more plausible.
I am a firm believer that JFK was assassinated as the result of a conspiracy, and while I would love to think that the CIA, in cahoots with many different levels of government in an elaborate scheme is what did him in, it simply becomes too far-fetched to be believable. This film presents the conspirators as businessmen (who have their own teams of hitmen for carrying out various deeds), with economic interests that will be ruined if the United States pulls its troops out of Southeast Asia, as Kennedy promised he would do. It follows this group of men, led by an aging but still convincing Burt Lancaster, along with Robert Ryan and Will Geer, all of whom work well together. Everything is explained through these men and their point-of-view, and this detailed conspiracy becomes presented in a way that anyone will be able to follow along. Throughout the film, if you have watched JFK, you will see scenes depicted that were only talked about or mentioned in passing in Stone’s film, such as an Oswald impostor (who plays a pivotal role in the story) making himself seen all over Dallas in the weeks leading up to the assassination, by buying a rifle with a telescopic sight, practicing at a shooting range and firing on someone else’s target to draw attention to himself, and causing a fuss at a car dealership by making pro-Communist comments to a salesman he thinks is ripping him off. All this is happening while the real Oswald, who is not depicted and whose real whereabouts are unknown, is suggested as being a puppet of the FBI or CIA, causing his background to be muddled enough that he would become the perfect candidate as a patsy for the assassination.
Grainy film-stock quality aside (it is in need of a severe restoration), this is a thoroughly enjoyable story, if not somewhat frightening, though not on par with Stone’s; the only reason I keep drawing the comparison between the two is because the director had to have seen this movie before he made his own, because they are similar in so many ways. The one thing that Executive Action has that JFK does not is a disclaimer in the opening credits clearly stating that the plot is fictional, even though the speculation is based in fact. This allows the production more freedom, though the story told here is probably much more accurate (if that is the proper word to use) to the one told by Stone—JFK remains a favorite of mine, and a masterwork of editing and craft, but there are too many lies strewn throughout that it ruins what is actually true and what might be true, causing his film to be one of entertainment, and not education, which I think was his ultimate goal.
That said, this film is not perfect. Many of the scenes are quite verbose and the actual dialogue and planning between the big businessmen can border on lecturing, especially when you factor in the countless slideshows they view while sitting together. As for the actual assassination scene, parts of which were filmed on location at Dealey Plaza, I admire the director David Miller for actually including it, but it is rather lackluster. Executive Action is rated PG, and even though it would have probably been PG-13 had it come out today, I think an R-rating level of violence, as seen in the earlier mentioned The Parallax View, would have made the killing scene a lot better, and served as the icing on a well-baked cake, rather than just a, “Oh, well at least they tried” moment. But the rest of the film must be applauded for its directness, abundance of back-story (such as the assassination teams practicing on moving targets in the Texas desert, as well as conversations between the men in charge going down to the smallest of details in how the shooting will work, and how the killers will get away) and sticking to a very simple plot that does not overdo itself at its own expense.
What we are left with here is a hidden gem of film-making, with a clever story, good acting, and an excellent, well-researched screenplay by the legendary Dalton Trumbo. My final rating is a hard-fought 7.5, with a note that I would definitely watch it again. One must wonder why this film is not more well-known than others dealing with similar situations. Not to claim another conspiracy, but could there be a reason for that? Maybe the story that seeps through in Executive Action is more fact than fiction…