Executive Action (1973)

Dir. David Miller. Starring Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, James MacColl

I’m not entirely sure where this paradox begins. When people read a story or watch a movie or whatever about a dramatic historical event, they look for the depiction thereof to have even more drama scooped on top of it. However, it stands to reason that if the story is already an incredibly dramatic one, shouldn’t adding more drama to it be overkill? Because I’m in my late twenties, the movie that comes to mind for me is Titanic. It goes without saying that an enormous ocean liner going to the bottom of the ocean over the course of a few hours and taking 1,500 people with her is an enormously dramatic event. Naturally, Titanic adds a star-crossed lovers story to this enormously dramatic event, and thus the drama just absolutely oozes out of the screen. Does the story of the Titanic need that extra drama to work? No! A Night to Remember is, if a little ready to point fingers, very much based in the factual events of those fateful hours in April 1912. It does not have any parallel to Jack and Rose. And it is, not by any small margin, the superior movie. Yet people love Titanic. Heck, I love Titanic. We glom on to dramatic events told with as many affectations and feathers as can be stuck on. Just sticking to the 1990s, Schindler’s List is like that. Goodfellas is like that. JFK, importantly for the purposes of this conversation, is like that. They’re loud in the performances, in the cinematography, in the music. I don’t mean any of this as a criticism: they’re just showy. (The story that assumes there’s enough drama in the actual telling thereof is probably The Insider, which is not afraid to get into “how the sausage gets made” territory.) Of this group, JFK is arguably the most showoffish and dramatic of all. You would think that the JFK assassination would not need any extra drama added to it, but JFK is like if they stuck every Las Vegas show into the same room and told them to fight to the death. It might honestly be shorter to list the techniques that Oliver Stone doesn’t use in JFK than to list all the stuff he throws at the wall. Like TitanicJFK has a quieter, earlier companion movie about the same topic. Like A Night to RememberExecutive Action eschews histrionics in every way it can, even down to the title, assuming that the story itself will be lurid enough to hold our attention.

The gamble pays off. JFK is probably the better movie and the better watch. Executive Action works well on its own terms, though, even though they are slightly spongy terms. The movie is entirely open about the fact that its plot is entirely made up. It imagines a group of shadowy cabal of powerful men who are displeased with the direction of Kennedy’s first term, fearing that he is moving too far left, that he is too chummy with the Soviets, that people of color will be inspired to rise up thanks to his friendship. One man breathlessly relates a rumor that the plan is to give Jack another term, and then two for Bobby, and then two for Ted, in which the brothers who are not president this time around will take important roles in the third’s Cabinet. To them, the continuation of Camelot is extinction. Led in fervor by a wealthy man named Robert Foster (Ryan) and in deed by a run down black-ops specialist, James Farrington (Lancaster), they quietly decide to have JFK assassinated. The little details that conspiracy theorists and Wikipedia spelunkers alike have pored over for decades all have their day in this movie. Upon Farrington’s suggestion that lone wolf types have always been the ones to try to kill the president in the past, from Booth to Zangara, they decide to find a likely patsy. They choose Lee Harvey Oswald. They manage to get him on TV. They hire a guy who looks like Oswald (MacColl) to pretend to be him, picking fights and dropping his name across Dallas. The scenes with the fake Oswald are almost funny, in a macabre kind of way. In one he tries to mimic Oswald’s cadence while Oswald’s TV interview is projected in front of him. His command of what Oswald says shows that the guy is a day or two from being off book. You also have to laugh at the way he gets into with a guy selling cars, skirting right up against getting pounded by this dude but making sure that he tells him LEE OSWALD is the one with these pro-Soviet, anti-Texan attitudes. They plan out the route in Dallas where snipers can triangulate their fire on Kennedy’s slow-moving car; we have seen multiple teams try their hand at firing at a moving target on a track somewhere in the desert. When Oswald starts using the word “patsy” on television after he’s been arrested, Farrington engages Jack Ruby (Oscar Oncidi) to finish the job for them. The job ends more or less successfully, but with a tinge of irony. Farrington dies offscreen of a heart attack, presumably brought on by the stress of this terrifically difficult, terrifically immoral job. His final breaths are taken at Parkland Hospital, which, while not insignificant, is about as much drama as the movie allows itself to indulge in.

This is how Executive Action works: in declarative sentences, frequently with punctuation in the middle of them, and never with exclamation points. Sometimes it feels like a slide show because, well, it’s filming a slide show, as it is when Farrington explains to Foster why Oswald would make a good fall guy. (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where Lee Harvey Oswald’s radicalization is handled in a way that demands the viewer’s attention.) The movie makes hay out of footage from the time, whether it’s archival footage of Adlai Stevenson having a tough time with some people in his Texas audience yelling at him, Kennedy signing the nuclear test ban treaty, or Kennedy riding cheerfully along in Dallas alongside Jackie. Interestingly, the movie stages the actual assassination, presumably because it was made before the Zapruder film went well and truly public. Most of its conversations are the kind of sotto voce fare that fills the stories about conspiracies, but instead of dialogue about character development or motivation or the horror the future might hold, these conversations are simple, businesslike. Executive Action does not give Foster and Farrington anything to fight over, where in a more dramatic movie about the people conspiring to kill Kennedy, the two of them would absolutely have a falling out somewhere around November 20 that puts the whole thing in jeopardy. I don’t mind not having the excesses, on the whole, but Executive Action still feels a little feeble. The problem isn’t that its major characters calmly map out what they’ll do to kill the president, or that it’s too detail or that it’s too conversational. The issue that the movie never overcomes is the premise. By choosing a random and mostly unaffiliated group of conservatives where others have pointed the finger at a group of real people (Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, etc.) or at a real organization (the Mafia), Executive Action undermines its own documentary feel. The strange coincidences and facts of the case are laid out with some clarity, but the fact that Robert Foster’s home is as unreal as the Texas Book Depository is real does nothing to help give the movie its vitality. Executive Action has the suspicions that polls show most Americans have about the Kennedy assassination, but never has a thesis it can use to back up with all its data.

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