Even though it happened 22 years before I was born, I sometimes feel as if it was only yesterday that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
A lot of that is because I’m from Dallas. When I was born, my family lived in Oak Cliff, a few blocks away from where the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald once lived. I drive by the Kennedy Memorial several times a week. I’ve gone to the Sixth Floor Museum. I’ve made out on the Grassy Knoll. On a daily basis, I see tourists who have come down here from up north with their preconceived prejudices, their unwieldy copies of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and their overactive sweat glands. (“How do you handle the heat!?” they ask when the temperature is barely above 90.) With the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, the Dallas Morning News has been running daily stories examining every detail of that terrible event.
The rest of the nation, of course, will never let us forget that JFK was assassinated in Dallas. Just last week, there was an idiotic and bitter opinion piece in The New York Times, written by James McAuley, in which he claimed that Dallas was a “city of hate” that should feel more guilt over the JFK assassination. As McAuley (who is studying history at Oxford and is not a resident of that city that he apparently feels qualified to judge) put it, “For 50 years, Dallas has done its best to avoid coming to terms with the one event that made it famous: the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.”
This, of course, is bullshit.
There are two competing schools of thought about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One says that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible. The other is that Kennedy was killed as the result of a complex conspiracy.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Well, Oswald was born in New Orleans but he was raised up north in New York City. He was also a communist with a history of mental instability. Hence, if you accept that Oswald was the lone assassin than you also have to be willing to accept that Oswald would have tried to kill Kennedy regardless of what city he was living in.
Things get a bit more complicated if you believe that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy. But let’s consider the usual suspects that come up whenever people start talking about the possibility of conspiracy. The Mafia was based in the north. The CIA was based in Washington, D.C. The anti-Castroites were based in Miami. Again, all of these conspirators would have killed Kennedy regardless of what city he went to in November.
It’s easy for the rest of the country, in a fit of jealousy, anger, and delusion, to blame Dallas and Texas for the assassination of John F. Kennedy but, regardless of whether you believe in the lone assassin or a larger conspiracy, the truth is far more complex.
Over the next few days, as part of the 44 Days of Paranoia, I’ll be taking a look at some of the many films that were inspired by this assassination. Let’s start things off with one of the lesser known entries in the JFK genre, 1973’s Executive Action.
Executive Action opens with a series of grainy, black-and-white photographs of both America in the 1960s and the men who, over the course of the film, will be portrayed as having plotted and carried out the assassination of President Kennedy while a mournful piano plays in the background. It’s a low-key but eerily effective opening and it also lets the viewers know exactly what type of film they are about to see. As opposed to Oliver Stone’s far better known JFK, Executive Action is a low-key, almost deliberately undramatic film. Despite the fact that there are some familiar faces in the cast (or, at the very least, familiar faces to those of us who watch TCM), Executive Action almost feels as if it could have been a documentary.
As the film opens in 1963, we see a group of very rich men talking about the future of America. Ferguson (Will Geer) and Foster (Robert Ryan) are concerned that President Kennedy’s policies are going to destroy America. Foster is worried that Kennedy is planning on cutting back on military spending. Ferguson is upset by Kennedy’s support of the Civil Rights movement. (In one memorable scene, we see Martin Luther King delivering his Dream speech on TV before the camera pulls back to reveal Ferguson watching in disgust.) Their associate, the shadowy Farrington (Burt Lancaster), argues that the only way to stop Kennedy is to assassinate him and put the blame on a lone gunman.
With the support of Ferguson and Foster, Farrington recruits a group of gunmen (led by Ed Lauter and including Roger Corman regular Dick Miller) and works to set up the perfect patsy. A man (James MacColl) goes around Dallas, acting obnoxious and telling anyone who will listen that his name is Lee Oswald. At Ferguson’s insistence, a picture is doctored to make it appear as if Lee Harvey Oswald is posing in his backyard with a rifle. As all of this goes on, the date of November 22nd steadily approaches…
As I stated before, Executive Action is an almost obsessively low-key film. That, however, works to the film’s advantage. Ferguson, Foster, Farrington, and the other conspirators are chillingly believable because they are presented almost as being anonymous. Instead of being portrayed as being super villains, they are instead men who approach assassination as just another part of doing business. The impression one gets is that Kennedy isn’t the first leader they’ve had killed and he probably wasn’t the last. Director David Miller seamlessly mixes historical footage with film reenactments and the end result is a disturbingly plausible film.
Unfortunately, Executive Action is less well-known than some of the other films that have argued that a conspiracy was responsible for the assassination for John F. Kennedy. However, it may very well be the best.