Film Score: Randy Edelman Cinematography: Robert Steadman
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer and Walter Brooke
Executive Action is a speculative film about one possible scenario of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The screenplay, written by Donald Trumbo, is based on the work of noted JFK researchers and authors Mark Lane and Donald Freed. The film begins with narration of text on the screen, to the effect that in one of President Johnson’s final interviews he felt the conclusions of the Warren Commission were incorrect, and that a conspiracy was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. Sixty years later, the specter looms that Johnson himself may, at the very least had knowledge of, and at worst, was complicit in the murder. There are two major aspects to the film as a whole that can be looked at independently. The first is the conspiracy itself, the people responsible and what their motives are. The second is the team that carries out the actual execution in Dallas. The conspiracy component is not entirely convincing, primarily because the associations of those involved are anonymous. They don’t even appear to be working at the behest of government agencies, which was probably because their wasn’t enough information at the time to risk accusing the CIA of murder. The assassination itself is the far more convincing part, triangulated fire that could have been carried out by any number of groups, ex-CIA, hired assassins working for the agency, or even mob hit men.
As the opening credits roll, black and white photos of the actors are shown amid other stills in order to give the film a documentary feel, as if they were a part of that specific past. The story begins at a large, suburban home. Inside, the problems with a potential Kennedy dynasty are being discussed for the benefit of Will Geer by Walter Brooke, Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. The suggestion is assassination by CIA and ex-clandestine forces operatives, setting up a fall guy and thus removing suspicion from the conspiracy. In the end Geer is unconvinced, but Lancaster seems very sure of himself. Meanwhile, rehearsals are underway in the Texas desert, while documentary footage of the real President Kennedy moves the timeline along, from June through November, 1963. Next, they choose Oswald as their patsy. Where the plan takes a turn for the unbelievable is when Ryan starts spouting to Lancaster about a Nazi-type program to reduce the population of Asians and Blacks in the world, as well as the U.S., in order to make room for whites. It’s easily the weakest part of the film. Geer keeps watching Kennedy’s televised speeches as the film goes along and Dallas, Texas is chosen as the site. It’s not until Will Geer sees that Kennedy is going to pull troops out of Vietnam that he calls Ryan and gives his blessing for the assassination.
Interestingly, the Zapruder film was not available yet to use in the production, as it had only been shown once on air, on a local Chicago television station in 1970. The film didn’t appear on network TV until 1975, two years after the film was produced. The footage of Kennedy and Connally being shot was thus recreated, and there are significant deviations from what actually happened. Nevertheless, with the exception of the bullet that hit Kennedy in the throat and the one that missed, the rest of the shots seem fairly accurate, especially having a separate shot hit Connally. Robert Ryan is clearly the leader of the conspiracy, the moneyman and controlling force. Burt Lancaster works for him and is the operations manager, organizing the teams and giving them their instructions. But Will Geer is ultimately the man in charge, and it’s not until he gives the go ahead that the team proceeds with the assassination. Other recognizable faces are Ed Lauter and Dick Miller as part of the primary execution team, and John Anderson, the car dealer from Hitchcock’s Psycho, as one of the conspirators. The film really has no suspense, or no drama. It’s a detached, clinical study of an assassination and, as such, it depends on what the viewer brings to the film as to how it will be received. Those looking for intrigue or suspense will be resoundingly disappointed. For those of a more historically minded bent, interested in how the film fits as a rejection of the Warren Commission only a decade after the assassination, Executive Action is worth taking a look.