Back in 1991 Oliver Stone played me for a fool. When I first saw his film JFK I was completely in. No matter how outlandish the theories he put forth, I was completely sold. Twenty some years later I’ve become much more skeptical. I don’t claim to know what happened that day in Dallas, and I still think Stone’s film is brilliantly constructed, but I now see that old Oliver was grasping at more straws than the kid that fills the dispensers at McDonalds. However, Stone was not the first to bring the possibilities of a JFK conspiracy to the screen. Released ten years after the assassination was the film we are looking at today…1973’s Executive Action.
The film opens in a fancy office…which, by the way, I’m pretty sure is the same office used by Tim Matheson’s character in Fletch…where a group of men have gathered to discuss some sinister plans. Among them are James Farrington (Burt Lancaster) who seems to have a background in black ops, and a big business tycoon Robert Foster (Robert Ryan). They, and others, are trying to convince another businessman named Ferguson (Will Geer) to join their plan. They discuss how they are growing troubled with the Kennedy administration, especially his plans to withdraw troops from Vietnam. They also aren’t too thrilled with the thought of continued Camelot rule as brothers Bobby and Teddy no doubt will follow their brother in the oval office. Their solution is simple: assassinate JFK. For some reason never fully explained Ferguson’s approval is crucial to the plan moving forward.
It takes a while for Ferguson to get on board. Luckily, Farrington already had teams of shooters (who include Ed Lauter and Dick Miller) working in anticipation of the plan’s approval. But there’s a lot more to the plan than just preparing the shooters; they’ve also got to set up the patsy. They select a former marine with communist tendencies, one Lee Harvey Oswald. Unknown to Oswald, the conspirators are orchestrating various events in his life, including getting him press for his pro-Castro activities and eventually moving him to Dallas and getting him a job at the Texas School Book Depository. They also get their own Oswald double (James Mac Coll….who looks more like Jim Parsons from Big Bang Theory) to start causing trouble and proclaiming himself to be Oswald. As history records, the assassination of JFK happens, but now the conspirators must finish the job by eliminating the real Oswald.
Like the 1991 film JFK, this film has it’s fair share of holes. In Stone’s film, Kevin Costner theorizes on many different conspiracy possibilities as he investigates the assassination. Here our main characters are the conspirators. It’s never really made clear who they are, other than hints that they have ties to the government and big business. They are supposedly manipulating Oswald’s life to set him up for the fall, but how exactly they get around the fact that he is a human being with free will is a mystery. Bottom line is there’s plenty for conspiracy junkies to gobble up, but common sense is not exactly on the menu. Who these guys are and how they have so much power is left too vague to be believable.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some parts of the film that are quite well executed. In fact, there are more than a handful of stylistic elements that Stone would borrow or outright rip-off nearly 20 years later. Many sequences utilize a mixture of color footage intercut with black and white as well as grainy news footage of the actual motorcade. The editing in some of these sequences is quick and somewhat disorienting; doing a very effective job of creating the feeling of confusion that was no doubt present in Dealey Plaza that day. Having watched Stone’s film numerous times, I found several moments that the director nearly duplicated.
For the most part, the film moves briskly and keeps the audience engaged. The script was penned by Dalton Trumbo and is pretty well done. The film does start to run out of steam at it’s very end, however. The introduction of the Jack Ruby element of the story is done in a hurry and is just plain sloppy. Not to mention the fact that the scene that introduces Ruby (a conversation between him and one of his dancers) is very poorly acted.
There are a few moments that get confusing, but that’s part of the nature of being a conspiracy theory. It may not be as slick or frenetic as Stone’s film, but Executive Action does have more than its share of entertainment value. How much truth there is to it…that’s another story, and I’m not going there.