Executive Action (1973)

That’s What They Want You To Think!

Executive Action was released 10 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and thus is a film by those who remember the day and its aftermath so vividly. Executive Action blends fiction and historical fact into creating one possible scenario to who was responsible for the assassination of JFK, but one which the movie makes feel convincing. The film is a great companion piece to Oliver Stone’s JFK; Stone has stated Executive Action was a basis on inspiration for JFK and it’s not hard to see aspects of JFK within Executive Action. Like in JFK, there is much intercutting of archive footage and black & white flashbacks, while the military like score by Randy Edelman feels reminiscent of John William’s score to JFK.

Much of the film is comprised of engrossing documentary like discussions and presentations, making it like an adaptation of a stage play. Those behind the assassination in Executive Action are a small group of businessmen, political figures and former US Intelligence personnel. They spend much of the movie alone in a mansion and come off as people who are out of touch with common society, nor are they keen on civil rights or minorities. They’re like a secret society and are interested in their own agenda – an elite who believe it’s their duty to pull off an action such as assassinating individuals to preserve their interests; in fact it’s even stated this isn’t the first time any of them have taken part in an assassination; these are businessmen controlling the world. Will Geer plays a stereotypical looking southern businessman who looks a bit like Colonel Sanders, while Burt Lancaster’s menacing performance reminds me of his role of the evil business mogul J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. These are cold-blooded, emotionless men and the entire film is deliberately acted in low key performances. Whereas JFK is a film driven by emotion, Executive Action is the opposite in this respect.

The film does an effective job at recreating 1963 with the fashions and cars on show and despite the low budget, there are aerial shots of Dealey Plaza with the appropriate cars on the road and a recreation the billboard sign on top of the book depository as it looked in 1963. My only downside to Executive Action is the film’s inconsistent pacing. The middle portion of the film drags as the story becomes less eventful, but the suspense builds up once the day of the assassination has arrived.

Executive Action was made during a period when paranoia/conspiracy thrillers where at their height and right during the Watergate scandal; yet has been swept under the rug of history as it is the type of film which would be easily dismissed by critics for being speculative and other such dirty words. Thus there is a taboo like joy which comes from watching a provocative, somewhat trashy film like this.

I also recommend watching the vintage featurette on the Executive Action DVD. During it the film’s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo states he didn’t believe in any conspiracy theories until he read the Warren Report and a dozen books on the subject and became convinced the president had been killed by bullets from two different angles. Likewise, Burt Lancaster tells of how he became increasingly convinced of a probable conspiracy when doing his research. It goes to show how easy it is to be swayed into believing the JFK conspiracy.

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JFK (1991)

No Stone Unturned

I’m aware in modern times conspiracy theories have become detrimental in discovering the actual truth (largely thanks to the internet) but I can’t deny that I just love this sort of stuff. JFK requires your utmost attention and at a runtime of three hours, it feels like the movie leaves no stone upturned (pardon the pun) in its examination and deconstruction of the Kennedy assassination. Admittedly the first time I watched JFK I didn’t understand much of what is discussed in the film. It’s a lot to digest in a single viewing but there are more intriguing theories here than an entire season of Ancient Aliens (minus the bad haircuts and awkward line delivery); but I can happily watch JFK multiple times to further understand it and eat up every single word of dialogue. I doubt we will ever need another film made about the Kennedy assassination; what highly talented filmmaker could be more passionate about the subject matter? I also highly recommend watching the director’s cut for even more conspiracy goodness to evoke the paranoia in you.

JFK is one of those movies which makes you most appreciate the art of editing, incorporating many layers of time and reels of stock footage; no scene during the movie’s three hours is edited in a standard fashion. The editing help make the film’s exposition exciting; a character may be describing an event as the scene cuts to just that in an obscured or dreamlike manner. The Mr. X sequence with Donald Sutherland is a perfect example of how to pull of engrossing exposition; plus is there a more classic cold war, spy movie type scene than meeting a suited man in the park to receive classified information. Likewise, John Williams’ theme for JFK evokes my inner patriotic American, even if I’m not American. The militaristic and at other times conspiratorial nature of the score helps make the movie as compelling as it is. The black & white scenes such as those featuring the military feel reminiscent of Seven Days In May with shades throughout of the John Frankenheimer style. I’m sure Stone must have also taken some pointers from the first movie about the Kennedy assassination, 1973’s Executive Action.

JFK continues the tradition of films such as The Longest Day in which a large ensemble cast of familiar faces and great screen presences to help guide us through the story. It’s amazing seeing different generations of actors doing some of the best work their careers and utilizing their screen personas to full effect even if many of them are only on screen for short spaces of time. Some of the figures in the story strike me as too bizarre to have been real-life people, especially David Ferrie and Claw Shaw.

I’ve always been in defense of Kevin Costner against criticisms of being a dull actor. Granted his career did go downhill in mid 90’s and has never fully recovered but in his heyday of the late 1980’s/early 90’s he was such a hot streak of films. Casting him in the role of Jim Garrison couldn’t be more perfect as Costner is much like a modern-day classic movie actor in the vein of everymen like James Stewart, Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper. He’s been most commonly compared to Cooper (the courtroom section of the film is reminiscent of Cooper’s role in The Fountainhead) although with his southern demeanor I would compare him to being a modern-day Henry Fonda. I would defy anyone to call Costner a bad actor after watching the film’s courtroom scene. Talking almost non-stop for 40 minutes and never losing my attention while exuding a stern, emotional and towards the end of the speech, a fragile voice; with his final conclusion bringing a tear to my eye.

I find Jim Garrison’s family life interesting itself, mostly from the relationship with his wife. What does he see in her? She does not support his endeavors, despite his noble cause and unlike her husband, she is susceptible to believing what the media tells her. Here is a man who spends the movie questioning and fighting the system yet has a wife with a conformist personality. I can’t say for certain what they were like in real life but the in film I grew to dislike her character.

JFK  draws no conclusions, it doesn’t prove who assassinated Kennedy and allows the viewer to make up their own mind. Stone may be often criticized for his use of a dramatist’s license but as I say with many films based on historical events; this can make for a more compelling story. Even if there are untruths present, the film can act as a gateway to wanting to discover the real story. The movie did leave me a feeling of (good) anger and is one of the films I can credit with helping to influence the way I think.

“Dedicated to the young in whose the spirit the search for truth marches on.”