With this November 22 being the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, now’s as good a time as any to check out this somewhat obscure, quietly sinister conspiracy thriller from 1973. Reportedly the first narrative feature film to depict the Kennedy killing, Executive Action also tells an unambiguously accusing story about how and why it happened.
In this scenario, Burt Lancaster leads a coterie of military-industrial conservatives who calmly decide to eliminate the Commander in Chief because he obstructs their interests. And so the most haunting murder in American history begins with a group of craggy cigar-puffing grey-white men lurking in dark wooden rooms and making ominous pronouncements like this:
“The real problem is this, James. In two decades there will be seven billion human beings on this planet. Most of them brown, yellow, or black. All of them hungry. All of them determined to love. They’ll swarm out of their breeding grounds into Europe and North America. Hence Vietnam. An all-out effort there will give us control of South Asia for decades to come. And with proper planning, we can reduce the population to five hundred and fifty million by the end of the century. I know, I’ve seen the data.”
Well, okay then. Specifics of the assassination plot include elaborate target practice in the desert somewhere, lots of old-school photo doctoring, and a carefully rehearsed Lee Harvey Oswald doppelganger. Of the real Oswald, someone asks, “Can we rely on a character like this?” The answer: “We’re not relying on him. We’re using him.”
Written by Dalton Trumbo, arguably the most famous blacklisted member of the Hollywood Ten, this movie is in no mood to play nice with right-wing bullies. Just after the opening credits, a title card says, “Although much of this film is fiction, much of it is also based on documented historical fact. Did the conspiracy we describe actually exist? We do not know. We merely suggest that it could have existed.”
Executive Action does at the very least remind us how JFK’s death took some innocence away from modern American political culture, replacing it with what seems in retrospect like a kind of permanent paranoia.