Executive Action (film)

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Executive Action
Executive Action1973.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by David Miller
Produced by Edward Lewis
Written by Dalton Trumbo
Story by Mark Lane
Donald Freed
Starring Burt Lancaster
Robert Ryan
Will Geer
Music by Randy Edelman
Cinematography Robert Steadman
Edited by George Grenville
Distributed by National General Pictures
Release date
  • November 7, 1973 (1973-11-07)
Running time
91 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget under $1 million[1]:276

Executive Action is a 1973 conspiracy thriller film about the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, written by Dalton Trumbo, Mark Lane, and Donald Freed, and directed by David Miller. It stars Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Miller had previously worked with Trumbo on his film Lonely Are the Brave (1962).


A narrator states that, when asked about the Kennedy Assassination and the Warren Commission report, President Lyndon Johnson said he doubted the Commission's findings. The narration ends by mentioning that the segment did not run on television, and was cut from a program about Johnson at his own request.

At a gathering in June 1963, shadowy industrial, political and former US intelligence figures discuss their growing dissatisfaction with the Kennedy administration. In the plush surroundings of lead conspirator Robert Foster (Robert Ryan), he and the others try to persuade Harold Ferguson (Will Geer), a powerful oil magnate dressed in white, to back their plans for an assassination of Kennedy. He remains unconvinced, saying, "I don't like such schemes. They're only tolerable when necessary, and only permissible when they work". James Farrington (Burt Lancaster), a black-ops specialist, is also among the group. He shows Ferguson and others that a careful assassination of a President can be done under certain conditions, and refers to the murders of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley as examples, and includes assassination attempts of others including against Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, referring to the practice as "executive action".

In the Mojave Desert, a hit squad practices shooting moving targets at medium-to-long range. One of the shooters says that he can only guarantee the operation's success if he fires at a target moving below 15 miles per hour.

The lead conspirators, Farrington and Foster, discuss preparations for the assassination. Obtaining Ferguson's approval is crucial to the conspirators, although Farrington proceeds to organize two shooting teams in anticipation that Ferguson will change his mind. Ferguson, meanwhile, watches news reports and becomes highly concerned at Kennedy's increasingly "liberal" direction: action on civil rights, the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and nuclear disarmament. The decisive moment comes in an anti-Kennedy news report on the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. It is followed by Kennedy's October 1963 decision (National Security Action Memorandum #263) to withdraw all US advisers from Vietnam by the end of 1965, effectively ending America's direct involvement in the Vietnam War. Ferguson calls Foster and tells him he now supports their project.

Foster and Farrington discuss their murky, paranoid fears about the future of the country under Kennedy, and the security of ruling-class white people around the world. Foster forecasts the population of the world in 2000 at seven billion, the majority of them non-white and "swarming out of their breeding grounds into Europe and North America". He sees victory in Vietnam as an opportunity to control the developing world and reduce its population to 550 million, adding that they can then apply the same "birth-control" methods to unwanted groups in the United States: poor and genetically and "socially defective" whites, as well as to Asians, blacks and Latinos. Foster, it seems, is privy to plans known to the CIA, or perhaps knowledge of even more secret information unknown to Ferguson, a civilian.

The scene of the shooting is described. As news of the assassination reaches the conspirators, the film surveys its effects. Farrington and his assistant discuss the fallout from the assassination, in particular how they should deal with the fact that Oswald has survived. Farrington contacts nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who stalks and kills Oswald.

While the real assassins leave Dallas, the conspirators work to cover up the evidence. They discuss the political fallout in Washington, D.C., concerned about retribution from Robert F. Kennedy and the "believability" of the plot. Foster states that "Bobby Kennedy is not thinking as Attorney General but as a grieving brother. By the time he recovers it will be too late". The conspirators agree that people will believe in the story because "they want to believe the story". Soon after, Foster receives a call from Farrington's assistant: Farrington has died of a heart attack "at Parkland Hospital". The conspirators are now insulated from the link to the group that committed the killings.

Their work is not quite finished. A photo collage of 18 material witnesses is shown, all but two of whom, the film states, died of unnatural causes within three years of the assassination. A voice-over says that an actuary of the British newspaper The Sunday Times calculated the probability that all these people who witnessed the assassination would die within that period of time to be 100,000-trillion-to-one.[a]



The actor Donald Sutherland has been credited as having conceived of the film, and for hiring Lane and Freed to write the screenplay.[4] Sutherland had planned to act in and produce Executive Action, but abandoned the project after failing to obtain financing, and took a role in another film.[4] Executive Action would prove to be Robert Ryan's final film: he died of cancer four months before its release. Steve Jaffe, former DA Jim Garrison's investigator, was the film's technical consultant.


The film's musical score was composed by Randy Edelman.


Released two weeks before the tenth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, Executive Action opened to a storm of controversy about the events it depicts, and was consequently pulled from many theaters in its first few weeks. Many television stations also refused to run trailers for the film, among them WNBC-TV in New York City.

Besides the negative press, the film was also generally panned. Pauline Kael called it a "feeble, insensitive fictionalization ... It's a dodo-bird of a movie, the winner of the Tora! Tora! Tora! prize in miniature. With matchlessly dull performances."[5] Leonard Maltin declared the film a "bomb" in his Movie Guide, calling it an "excruciatingly dull thriller [that] promised to clear the air about JFK's assassination but was more successful at clearing theaters."[6]

In contrast, The New York Times gave it a positive review, its critic Nora Sayre writing that the film "offers a tactful, low-key blend of fact and invention. The film makers do not insist that they have solved John Kennedy's murder; instead, they simply evoke what might have happened, ... The film's sternest and strongest point is that only a crazed person acting on his own would have been acceptable to the American public — which, at that time, certainly did not want to believe in a conspiracy."[7]

Meanwhile, Roger Ebert was equivocal, giving the film two stars and calling it "a dramatized rewrite of all those old assassination conspiracy books."[8] Ebert stated, "There’s something exploitative and unseemly in the way this movie takes the real blood and anguish and fits it neatly into a semi-documentary thriller."[8] He added that "Executive Action doesn't seem much to want to entertain" and called Miller's direction "colorless".[8] Ebert continued, saying that the film "borrows from actual newsreel footage of Kennedy, Oswald and Jack Ruby for most of its power. And it does have power, make no mistake. It has the power of evoking what will probably remain, for most of us, the most stunning public moment of our lives: the moment when we first learned that the President had been shot".[8]

Comparison to similar films[edit]

At least five other American films dramatize the Kennedy assassination as a conspiracy; Executive Action sits alongside Oliver Stone's JFK (1991); John MacKenzie's Ruby (1992); the 1984 William Tannen film Flashpoint; and Neil Burger's 2002 pseudo-documentary Interview with the Assassin.

Despite many similarities with the plot of JFK, Executive Action presents a far more direct and unemotional account of its own touted conspiracy than does Stone's film. Executive Action is directed in an almost documentary style, and was filmed on a small budget[9]—despite the presence of two big Hollywood names, Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. Furthermore, the story is told entirely from the perspective of the conspirators

Home media[edit]

Executive Action was released on DVD on October 23, 2007 in the United States and Canada.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The number was given in a Sunday Times article on February 26, 1967. In response to a request by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 for a copy of the actuarial study, the legal manager for the newspaper replied that the article was based on a careless journalistic mistake and should not have been published. This was realized by The Sunday Times editorial staff after the first edition — the one which goes to the United States and which I believe you have — had gone out, and later editions were amended. We asked the actuary the wrong question: what were the odds against fifteen named people out of the population of the United States dying within a short period of time [instead of] the odds against fifteen of those included in the Warren Commission index dying within a given period [would have been] much lower.[2]:463–465 Robert M. Musen, vice president and senior actuary at Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, estimated that the odds of 15 people out of 2,479 in the Warren Commission index dying within a three-year period, assuming a median age of 40, would be 98.16 percent, or one out of 1.2. Assuming a median age of 35, the number would be 57.09 percent, or one out of 1.75.[3]:1013–14.


  1. ^ Buford, Kate (2001). Burt Lancaster : an American life. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306810190. OCLC 47398389. 
  2. ^ HSCA Hearings, vol. 4
  3. ^ Bugliosi, Vincent (2007). Reclaiming history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393045250. OCLC 80180151. 
  4. ^ a b Marx, Andy (January 2, 1992). "'Executive Action' dealt with same theme as 'JFK'". The Vindicator. Youngstown, Ohio. p. D4. Retrieved May 26, 2013. 
  5. ^ Pauline Kael, 1982, 5001 Nights at the Movies: A Guide from A to Z, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  6. ^ Leonard Maltin, 2014, Leonard Maltin's 2015 Movie Guide, Penguin (Also in earlier editions)
  7. ^ Nora Sayre, "Suspense Film Dramatizes Kennedy Assassination:The Cast", New York Times, November 8, 1973. Retrieved May 5, 2016
  8. ^ a b c d Ebert, Roger (November 20, 1973). "Executive Action". RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital. Retrieved December 15, 2014. 
  9. ^ Box Office Information Online

External links[edit]