Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted communist screenwriter recently portrayed by Bryan Cranston in the film Trumbo, had such a long and varied career in film that it’s hard to keep track of all the screenplays he wrote. His last film was also the very first Kennedy assassination conspiracy film. A low-budget dramatization of Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan, Executive Action was released in 1973 on the tenth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, and quickly pulled from theaters because of bad reviews. While it would probably be an exaggeration to say that Trumbo’s film was “suppressed,” there’s no question that many of the critics let their outrage over the subject matter get the better of their love of cinema. Dalton Trumbo couldn’t write a bad film if he tried. Executive Action is a masterpiece.
It’s not so much that Executive Action’s tightly knit conspiracy of Texas oil millionaires, mercenaries, and professional killers is true to history, or even plausible. It’s certainly plausible – whether or not it’s true to history only history can ultimately decide – but in many ways it doesn’t really matter. The Kennedy assassination is almost a McGuffin. What gives Executive Action its punch is the way Dalton Trumbo dramatizes the banality of evil. Except for one shocking and genocidal outburst against the people of the global south, James Farrington and Robert Foster never express any personal hatred of John F. Kennedy, or of the liberalism he represented. What makes Executive Action so shocking, and what probably motivated all those film critics to campaign for its suppression, is not just that the villains are square-jawed, white Anglo Saxon Protestants. It’s that they’re so obviously not villains. Like the Navy pilots who dropped napalm on civilians in Vietnam, or the scientists who developed the atomic bomb, they are cool, competent professionals “just doing their job.” We follow Foster and Farrington through the motions of training two kill teams exactly the way we’d follow a corporate training video at GM designed to teach us how to manufacture a new type of car. We develop an emotional interest in the job. We admire the thoroughness of the planning, the methodical way they try to isolate and neutralize possible mistakes. We want to see them succeed. After they do succeed in blowing John F. Kennedy’s brains out, we want to see them get away.
Then we remember who they killed.
Executive Action was made for under a million dollars, and director David Miller made extensive use of newsreels and archival photographs. In many ways, it’s a cut and paste job. Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster, who had previously played a fascist, anti-Kennedy general in the earlier Seven Days in May, acted in the film out of love, not the love of money. The bargain basement quality of the sets, in fact, add to the movie’s impact. David Miller and Dalton Trumbo know how to do a lot with a little. Executive Action doesn’t look like a cheaply made movie so much as a movie that has managed to get under the glossy illusion of American life that Hollywood, and indeed the Kennedys, represented. We see the world that Lee Harvey Oswald, who’s portrayed as a government patsy Foster and Farrington snatched out from under the CIA to be their own patsy, lived in. Robert Foster’s angry rant about how the people of the global south, blacks, Asians and Hispanics, were all “determined to love,” to breed and swamp Europe and North Americans with their dark skinned offspring seemingly comes out of nowhere, but once it’s past we realize it’s the angry rage for control and domination that’s always lurking under the polite facade of the American ruling class. Lee Harvey Oswald, an insignificant little communist, is carefully set up to be the fall guy for the murder of John F. Kennedy, but even if there were no Texas oil millionaire conspiracy, no well-trained mercenaries, the film conveys the way a nobody like Oswald quite possibly could have committed the assassination. The double that Farrington and Foster tap to poison the well, to travel through Texas and Louisiana picking fights and making a fool of himself in order to make it believable that Oswald could have been a murderer, is the dark shadow that lurks inside every frustated little American nebbish, the Dylan and Klebold, the Elliot Rodger, the Adam Lanza inside all of us.
Final Note: During Executive Action’s short run in American movie theaters – it was pulled in 1973, banned from television, and not seen again until the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK – people who bought tickets were also given a handout that not only summarized Mark Lane’s criticism of the Warren Commission, but pointed out the near statistical impossibility that so many witnesses to John F. Kennedy’s assassination could have died so shortly afterwards. I have no idea how accurate the handout was, and I don’t know very much about statistics, but the film itself is at its weakest when it tries to fit every little detail about the Kennedy assassination into an all embracing conspiracy theory. Lee Harvey Oswald lives. Farrington and Foster are dismayed and send one of their employees to tie up the “loose end,” to try convince Jack Ruby to kill Oswald in prison. Ruby does the deed, but it’s not convincing. Trumbo and Miller could have just as easily left the role of Jack Ruby to the viewer’s imagination. It’s not the role of the artist to determine whether something is true to history, or even if it was plausible, but to create an independent world that mirrors and reflects back upon and critiques reality. In Executive Action, Dalton Trumbo and David Miller largely succeed. The handout would have been an independent production that would have succeeded, or failed, on its own.