Eleven years after collaborating on the fantastic Western film Lonely Are The Brave (1962), director David Miller and writer Dalton Trumbo made Executive Action (1973). As the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam dominated news broadcasts Executive Action commemorated the tenth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination by challenging the findings of the Warren Commission with a fictionalized conspiracy drama that drew on the investigations of Jim Garrison. Executive Action is not the film of excess, romanticism, or Capra-esque morality that Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) is, but is a film of slow burning intensity more interested in the motives and conditions that led to Kennedy’s murder.
Much of Executive Action feels more like a stage play with Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan playing jaded intelligence operatives with politically conservative agendas who are spearheading an operation to kill Kennedy. Men walk and talk about Kennedy’s stances on Vietnam, Nuclear weapons, and the Civil Rights movement with a mixture of fear and disdain. The progressive policies of the Kennedy White House threaten the beliefs and businesses of these right wing statesmen. The rhetoric espoused by the villainous main characters is designed to evoke thoughts of Nixon and McCarthy in the mind of the contemporary viewer. However, in the twenty-first century Trumbo’s disturbing conservative rhetoric feels just as current and relevant.
The mafia, the CIA, the FBI, and so on and so forth are all depicted as complicit in Kennedy’s murder as Miller and Trumbo tell it. These political and social institutions are the puppets of American “Big Oil” and a conservative Christian minority that will use all of the power at its disposal to eliminate the opposition promised by Kennedy’s progressivism. The intense physical presence of Burt Lancaster with its burly charisma captures both the seductiveness and brutality of this kind of power. Lancaster is, in a rare turn, the bad guy. Robert Ryan, with his trusting, weathered and paternal expression of world weariness is also an unlikely but effective totem of conservatism in Miller’s hands. These heroes of Film Noir and Western pictures are now the charismatic and likable puppeteers behind Kennedy’s assassination. It’s a stroke of brilliant casting and direction that helps elevate Executive Action.
As Executive Action moves into its second and third acts Miller begins to incorporate more and more 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm footage shot by various news outlets of Kennedy’s final days. Images recorded in 1973 of actors are intercut with filmic records of 1963 to put fiction into history and history into fiction. Kennedy’s murder is such a convoluted affair that it is stranger than fiction. A notion that Miller and Trumbo exploit to great effect in order to sell their own conspiracy narrative. Causality is paramount to the interchange between each tract of images. If a gunman fires a shot in close-up in 1973, that bullet hits its mark in a grainy black and white newsreel from 1963. In 1963 Burt Lancaster joined Martin Luther King Jr. for his march on Washington but in 1973 Lancaster is the man behind Kennedy’s assassination. The actions of 1973’s fiction have their effect in 1963’s reality.
There are countless films, fiction and documentary, that open a dialogue with the historic record of Kennedy’s assassination. Of these films that are so prolific they feel like their own sub-genre, Executive Action may just be the best. Not only does Executive Action address the historical record of 1963, but it also comments on how the legacy of those events continue to live on in and shape our national identity through its cinematographic methodology. There’s an inherent duplicity to the dual image sets of Executive Action that give the film so much more agency and cultural relevancy than most political thrillers.