The Paranoid Style in Cinema: Executive Action (1973, David Miller)

November 22, 1963 was a defining event for a generation of Americans. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas became a national trauma, experienced collectively through media as a later generation endured 9/11. Nor did the event offer catharsis: Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, was gunned down on live television by Jack Ruby two days later, closing the door to definite answers. Almost immediately, suspicions that something wasn’t right began to fester; it didn’t seem possible that a loser with a gun could obliterate the President of the United States.

To quell public outcry (and perhaps to silence his own doubts), Lyndon Johnson commissioned an investigative panel. Headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Commission compiled a daunting mass of interviews to determine an answer. They found that Oswald, as initially suspected, acted alone in murdering Kennedy; his radical politics (evinced by a failed defection to the USSR, agitating for Fidel Castro in New Orleans and trying to murder demagogue Edwin Walker in Dallas) and itinerant lifestyle (a dyslexic ex-Marine, he drifted between jobs and towns, making few friends and abusing his Russian wife) provided plausible motives. Still, many thought this seemed too neat an explanation; the government, it appeared, must be hiding something.

Oswald Ruby
Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged patsy

While the Commission’s case for Oswald’s guilt was essentially sound, many refused to believe that Oswald could fire his rifle so quickly, or that a single bullet could hit both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally. And the investigators did, in fact, hide embarrassing facts. The discovery of Operation Mongoose, the Kennedy-approved CIA plan to murder Fidel Castro, say (a project secret even from Vice President Johnson), or that the FBI ignored an explicit threat from Oswald shortly before the assassination…then destroyed evidence to cover their tracks. Historian Kathryn Olmsted notes that “these leaders were not trying to protect the ‘real killers.’ Instead, they were statists trying to maintain Americans’ trust in their system of governance. Ironically, their lies would shatter that trust.”

Skeptics soon conjured alternate theories. Bertrand Russell formed an unofficial “committee” to investigate the Warren Commission in England, proclaiming it “riddled with contradictions” and comparing Oswald to Alfred Dreyfus. Less distinguished, but no less determined sleuths (Sylvia Meagher, a former housewife; ex-Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty; all-purpose crackpot Jim Marrs; and Mark Lane, a Civil Rights attorney) conducted investigations and published books, parsing the Warren Report, eyewitness accounts, photographs and the Zapruder film for inconsistencies, implausibilities, suspicious shadows and inscrutable minutia. Their community grew like Topsy, generating questions, theories and an inscrutable thicket of “factoids” nearly impossible for skeptics to parse, let alone rebut.

Kennedy Zapruder
Camelot’s final moments

Some theories are relatively simple: that JFK was murdered by Cuban or Soviet agents angry about the Castro plots, or right-wingers angry about his mishandling the Bay of Pigs, or organized crime. Others became painfully convoluted, involving various iterations of the “military-industrial complex,” the FBI, CIA, KGB, big business, Birchers, mobsters, French hitmen, European fascists, Oswald clones or Kennedy’s political rivals, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Some are flagrantly absurd, claiming that he’d been killed for learning the truth about space aliens; that Frank Sinatra murdered him; that he was shot by his driver or accidentally killed by a Secret Service agent; even that he faked his own death and went into hiding.

Most of these theories were, and are, believed in earnest. Not all began that way. Jim Garrison’s notorious investigation, as the District Attorney of New Orleans, drew its conclusions of a conspiracy run by businessman Clay Shaw and anti-Castro Cubans from Soviet disinformation (provided to Garrison by none other than Mark Lane). In 1967, radical playwright Barbara Gibson published MacBird!, a re-imagining of Macbeth with LBJ murdering Kennedy to become President. Garson, who admitted that “I never took that seriously,” was astonished when her play became an off-Broadway hit…and that her caricature of Johnson as Shakespearean Usurper became an accepted fact.

Mark Lane

The plausibility of these conjectures doesn’t matter: they seemed to match reality better than random violence. Lyndon Johnson began his term with sweeping legislative achievements that far outpaced Kennedy’s; however, his escalation of the Vietnam War and the eruption of race riots, along with his Texas-style boorishness, rendered him a leftist boogeyman. Kennedy, whose accomplishments were in fact mixed, became a martyr, a sainted icon of youthful idealism violently snuffed out, representing the calm before the stormy Sixties. Nursed by Jackie Kennedy and other Kennedy intimates, the “Camelot” myth soon became a matter of faith – reinforced further still after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.

In Don DeLillo’s Libra, a character researching the assassination finds himself “question[ing] everything, including the basic suppositions we make about our world of light and shadow, solid objects and ordinary sounds, and our ability to measure such things…to see things as they are, recall them clearly, be able to say what happened.” Conspiracy theories are both reassuring and intimidating: they present an explanation proportionate to the crime, but also the entrance to a labyrinth. If you accept that government conspirators can murder a president, what isn’t possible?

It wasn’t long until these theories made their way to film. Oddly, the first fictional movie about the Kennedy Assassination was Tonino Valerii’s The Price of Power (1969), an Italian Western transposing the events of 1963 to 1881. Here, a liberal president (Van Johnson) – ostensibly James Garfield, who was actually shot by a Republican office-seeker in Washington – is killed by a combine of Texas businessmen, racist lawmen and renegade ex-Confederates, including the Vice President (Jose Suarez). Giuliano Gemma, best-known for the Ringo films, stars as a rancher seeking revenge on the assassins; Fernando Rey, Warren Vanders and Benito Stefanelli play the chief conspirators.

Price of Power
The Price of Power (1969)

Though it has fans, including spaghetti aficionados Alex Cox and Christopher Frayling, Power isn’t particularly good. For a Western, it’s slow and talky, with only a handful of action scenes; for a political drama, it’s murky, ill-formed and tonally jarring (alternating earnest scenes of intrigue with gunslingers dueling by match light). Nonetheless, it incorporates a staggering amount of JFK lore, from a Zapruder-inspired murder to the First Lady’s pink dress and “Wanted for Treason” posters, to a patsy (Ray Saunders) murdered in custody and an official investigation debunking conspiracies. At the very least, it’s more inventive than Hollywood’s first crack at the assassination.

Donald Sutherland spent several years trying to produce a film based on Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment, only to find studios either disinterested or skeptical of its potential. The project eventually found its way into the hands of Warner Bros. producer Edward Lewis, who commissioned Executive Action from a treatment by Lane and playwright Donald Freed (who published a tie-in novel inspired by their research). Dalton Trumbo wrote the final screenplay; skeptical of conspiracy theories himself, he worked from the assumption that audiences accepted Oswald’s guilt and tried writing a script that would persuade them otherwise. His work didn’t entirely please Lane, who complained that Trumbo ignored his treatment’s emphasis on CIA culpability.

Dalton Trumbo

John Frankenheimer, a veteran thriller director and a close friend of both Jack and Bobby Kennedy, was Lewis’s first choice to direct. But Frankenheimer “just didn’t believe in” the film’s premise and further didn’t want to offend the Kennedys. David Miller, a journeyman who’d collaborated with Trumbo on Lonely are the Brave (1962), assumed directorial chores instead. Without Sutherland (too busy with other projects to commit) or a name director attached, Lewis could only secure a modest budget of around one million dollars. It was enough, however, to attract a few Old Hollywood stars who felt a personal attachment to the subject.

Burt Lancaster, a lifelong progressive who’d also been friends with JFK, hoped that the film would “make people skeptical” about the Warren Commission. Robert Ryan, suffering from terminal cancer (he died soon after filming wrapped), became attached to the project through his friendship with another costar, Will Geer. Known to ’70s audiences as Grandpa on The Waltons, Geer had a long career in radical politics, from involvement in Hollywood unions to the early gay rights movement (he’d been the romantic partner of Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society), which caused his blacklisting in the ’50s. With screenwriter Trumbo and producer Lewis, who’d both clashed with HUAC and Hollywood’s witch hunters, also on board, the film thus served as (in Franklin Jarrett’s words) “symbolic retribution” on the System from the Old Hollywood Left.

Ryan Lancaster
Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster chat during a break in filming

The filmmakers posit that Kennedy was slain by a right wing cabal, in keeping with the “military-industrial complex” favored by Lane and others. James Harrington (Lancaster), a former intelligence agent, lays out the case for assassination based on Kennedy’s disconcertingly progressive actions. Citing the historical murders, and attempted murders of past presidents, he notes that “all” of the assassins were insane loners. (This is misleading, at best: John Wilkes Booth was part of a conspiracy, while the Puerto Rican nationalists who targeted Harry Truman aren’t even mentioned.) Thus the need for a patsy; thus the need to “create” Lee Harvey Oswald.

Executive Action dutifully presents the expected conspiracy tropes. Oswald is impersonated by a look-alike who engages in incriminating behavior (firing at a Dallas shooting range, handing out pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans) to lay groundwork for the cover story. High-level conspirators fabricate evidence (including the backyard photograph of Oswald posing with his rifle) while teams of marksmen train in the desert. The Secret Service is encouraged to stand down, the Dallas motorcade diverted and slowed to allow shooters a chance. While the CIA and FBI aren’t actively involved, both distrust Kennedy enough to allow the plot to play out unhindered.

Lancaster Action
Burt Lancaster, conspirator

Why kill Kennedy? After all, oilman Ferguson (Geer) notes that such operations are “only tolerable when necessary, and only permissible when they work.” Because of JFK’s support for civil rights, his signing a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviets, and his plans to withdraw from Vietnam. All this would not only weaken America but interfere with Foster’s (Ryan) plans for population control; he plans to use Vietnam as a testing ground for mass murder that he’ll later introduce to the United States, targeting nonwhites in a quiet genocide using unspecified means.

In truth, Kennedy was no radical; he was a standard Cold War liberal who talked tough on foreign policy while instituting incremental change at home. Claims that he planned to withdraw from Vietnam are unproven, and probably unprovable. Evidence, whether his own actions or words of his intimates, are incomplete and contradictory; JFK agreed to reduce military advisers in Saigon while green-lighting the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem for secretly negotiating with North Vietnam. His credentials on civil rights weren’t much more solid, though by 1963 Kennedy at least moved towards genuine support for major reforms (culminating, after his death, in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts).

Will Geer
Will Geer, Grandpa Bircher

That said, many of Kennedy’s less reputable actions were unknown, or only whispered about in 1973. These came out only later, whether through the Church Committee’s discovery of Operation Mongoose or muckraking columnists who exposed Kennedy’s flagrant womanizing. (This ignorance cuts both ways, as one of the film’s plotters laments that Kennedy’s “clean” personal life makes blackmail impossible!) In a sense, it doesn’t matter; the Robert Welches and Edwin Walkers of the time viewed Kennedy in the same light as the film’s villains, reality be damned. In that sense, if nothing else, Executive Action rings somewhat true.

What doesn’t ring true are Action’s woolly distortions. Oswald’s life and career is bizarre enough that a novelist (or a government conspirator) couldn’t have invented it. The filmmakers aren’t satisfied with facts, claiming that Oswald’s posting to a naval station in Japan gave him access to high-level military intelligence, that he was an FBI informant, or that his return to the United States was preternaturally easy. The movie doesn’t delve into the minutia of the “magic bullet” or Oswald’s rate of fire (both of which have been shown plausible, time and again), which is probably best. It does, however, end with a list of “suspicious deaths” among witnesses supposedly silenced by conspirators…which might be more effective if any of these witnesses actually appeared in the movie.

For Executive Action‘s cardinal sin, from an artistic standpoint, is that it’s not very good. David Miller provides flat, workmanlike direction that, at best, achieves leisurely-paced, quasi-documentary realism (especially when his recreations merge with historical footage). At worst, it’s lazy and cheap-looking, with long, droning scenes of back story intercut with the assassins’ preparations. Trumbo’s script is didactic and tin-earned, so obsessed with arguing its case that it fails to tell a compelling story. The plotters are less characters than cartoons straight from Ramparts magazine; Kennedy exists merely as a sainted image projected in stock footage, further ennobled by Randy Edelman’s funereal score. The movie generates more confusion and boredom than outrage.

Executive Action

The acting is perfunctory: only Lancaster seems invested in the material, and even he’s hamstrung by a role requiring him to explain his motivations at length. Supporting players (John Anderson as another conspirator; Ed Lauter as a spy handler, his resemblance to Howard Hunt surely not accidental; James MacColl’s squirrely fake Oswald) have so little to work with that they can’t make any impression. One wonders which of these exposition-spouting mannequins Donald Sutherland planned to play if he’d been able to make the film, or if the project was originally more ambitious. After all, there’s only so much you can do with a budget made from pocket change.

Executive Action opened, predictably, to a great deal of controversy (many theaters refused to screen or advertise the film) and a critical drubbing. Pauline Kael called it a “dodo bird of a movie” that was “so graceless it’s beyond using even as a demonstration of ineptitude.” Vincent Canby called it “rather pious, unexciting” and lamented that “even to people who are prepared to accept some sort of conspiracy theory, including myself, this manner of fiction simply isn’t good enough.” Roger Ebert admitted that the movie contained some powerful individual sequences, but found “something exploitative and unseemly in the way this movie takes the real blood and anguish and fits it neatly into a semi-documentary thriller.”

Whether audiences were receptive is harder to gauge. On the one hand, its box office take was mediocre; on the other hand, the movie was cheap enough to turn a profit without becoming a blockbuster. Activist Art Simon credited Executive Action, for all its faults and initially negative reception, with allowing the conspiracy community their “first opportunity to have access to a major audience.” Released at the height of Watergate, with its slow corrosion of trust in American institutions, the movie’s theories didn’t strike the public as especially far-fetched. Undoubtedly, Executive Action laid the groundwork for more sophisticated and persuasive works to come.

Executive Action Kennedy

Long after Executive Action faded to obscurity, its theories keep resurfacing despite rebuttals from skeptical historians. Don DeLillo’s Libra presents Oswald as a knowing conspirator in a botched false flag operation; Oliver Stone’s JFK presents the most outlandish and unlikely speculation as unvarnished truth, while elevating Jim Garrison to a Capra-esque hero; TV shows like The X-Files and Dark Skies put their own outlandish spins on the assassination. 61 percent of Americans polled in 2017 believed a conspiracy killed JFK, versus just 33 percent accepting Oswald’s guilt. Millions of Americans still find a simple explanation for momentous events less compelling than cosmic guesswork.

Enjoyed this article? Consider donating to my Ko-Fi.