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50th Anniversary: 8 JFK Assassination Films That Revisit History

by Jessica Kiang
November 20, 2013 2:09 PM
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Executive Action

Executive Action” (1973)
It’s hard to believe that a film that was so controversial it was pulled from theaters, had no televised trailers, and was not seen on TV for a decade afterward, could be so dull, and yet here we have exhibit A: “Executive Action.” No doubt because since then we’ve had Oliver Stone’s far superior “JFK,” which also posits an alternate theory to the lone gunman official line, this dry, didactic film, which mainly features men watching televisions playing archive footage of JFK, or walking from room to room delivering dialogue that feels directly lifted from a dossier compiled by a highly uncreative clerk, is basically a slog. The great shame is that it does have an interesting premise: to tell the story of the alleged conspiracy (albeit one the filmmakers need us to know they are not saying did happen, just that it “could have”) but from the point of view of the conspirators. And yes, it does feature a plot that is heavily influenced by some of the theories that sprang up in the intervening decade: there are three shooters, triangulated; Oswald is a stooge; and Kennedy was assassinated by a cadre of sinister business and governmental interests that make common cause when his popularity and left-wing policies start to encroach too much on their right wing (and sometimes even eugenicist) worldviews. So there is some promise to the concept, especially as the film, despite its low budget, secured the stalwart talents of Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan (in his last screen role, sadly).

But the plodding pacing and leaden direction actually manage to make this most dastardly of intrigues feel boring, reducing the complex machinations of these high-powered individuals to a series of exposition-heavy talks delivered by some old codgers who don’t seem to have any real connection to the outside world, let alone personalities. Aside from those parts, we get documentary footage and then some segments relating to Oswald and Jack Ruby which, in their poor acting and awkward staging, feel more like a TV documentary’s “dramatic reconstruction” of events than actual cinematic storytelling. In the context of Watergate, which was happening at the time, perhaps the firestorm around the film’s release can be better understood, as it certainly does aim to further erode public faith in the “official” government-sanctioned version of events. However its self-seriousness and bone-dry tone of voice (containing none of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s usual brio) somehow work to make it all less convincing, and a postscript reference to the 18 “material witnesses” who died in the years following the killing, feels all the more exploitative for having no actual connection to the thrust of the film that has just numbed our asses for 90 interminable minutes.

Oswald's Ghost

Oswald’s Ghost” (2007)
The second of two directors named Stone to tackle this subject matter, documentarian Robert Stone’s 2007 film is a compelling, intricately researched and well-mounted addition to the canon, that may not add a great deal of new evidence, but nor does it really aim to. Instead it presents the story of the stories: it tracks the conflicting narratives that emerged in the aftermath of the assassination, via crisply restored archive footage, choice audio selections and talking head interviews with many of the theories’ own authors. It is perhaps a little heavily weighted in favor of Norman Mailer, especially as it gives him the last word and therefore the seeming summation of the film’s position (Oswald acted alone), when in fact overall it has presented a much more balanced view than that suggests, and at the midpoint seems to be arguing just as persuasively in the other direction. But while it’s a shame that Stone couldn’t seem to find a way to end it on a more equivocal note, there is still plenty to be impressed by here, not least just how well, and fluidly, the director knits together the various documentary elements at his disposal to create an overarching narrative which really is about the nature of conspiracy theories. The desire to identify a conspiracy, he suggests, is a natural offshoot of wanting to believe that there is order, no matter how evil and secret and corrupt, rather than chaos. As one commentator memorably puts it, people want to understand “how someone as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald could have killed someone as consequential as John F Kennedy.”

Along the way, Stone talks to many of the journalists and authors who were among the first to cry “conspiracy,” rather humorously sideswipes Jim Garrison (the various accounts of the numerology by which he gets from some random numbers found in Oswald’s notebook to Jack Ruby’s phone number are pretty hilarious), and even finds time to include footage of Oliver Stone on the set of “JFK," (of which film, of course, Jim Garrison was the hero.) Most interestingly, he sets up a strong, layered context against which the various strands of conspiracy thought (CIA? Mafia? The Russians? LBJ?) unfold, and, in one of the film’s most powerful sequences, relates the assassinations of Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy—not so much in terms of the whos or the hows, but in terms of their cumulative effect on the nation as a staggered but crushing fall from grace. Coupled with escalation in Vietnam (which one talking head posits was the result of LBJ’s personal conviction that Kennedy had been killed in reprisal for the assassination of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem just weeks prior), the assassinations and their aftermath, Stone argues, irrevocably changed the nature of the relationship between the government and the people, and therefore fundamentally altered the nation’s sense of itself.

The Parallax View

The Parallax View” (1974)
The middle film in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy (“Klute” and “All The President’s Men” being the other two) may be the least of the three, but that’s a pretty high bar. And while its relationship to the Kennedy assassination is tacit, it’s nonetheless unmistakably inspired not just by the events on Dealey Plaza, but by the climate of suspicion that sprang up afterwards, with regards to the shady agendas and high-level secrets that many believed were keeping the truth concealed. The association is planted early, with the assassination of a Kennedy-esque senator and the immediate death of his alleged killer, one who we know did not act alone. A monolithic, faceless “Commission” declares the killing the work of one deranged gunman, and that seems to be that until people who were witnesses to the shooting start dying off an an actuarially improbable rate. Warren Beatty’s hangdoggish but handsome reporter picks up the trail and finds it leads to a corporation called Parallax, which he infiltrates under an assumed name at which point the film’s thinly-stretched real-life parallels finally reach their elastic limit.

In fact, the paranoia premise, pursued to the degree it is here, simply undercuts the film’s plotting—it’s never explained who the Parallax Corporation are, what (if anything ) is their political agenda, and how they could possibly be so all powerful as to constantly be one step ahead of the game, even in situations where there’s seemingly no way they could have found out what they know. And the absence of politics altogether makes a glaring omission from the film—all we know about the bad guys is that they are Bad and Do Bad Things for incomprehensible reasons. One can’t help but think that as a reporter, Beatty’s journalist would want to find out not just who killed the Senator but why, but instead the Parallax Corporation serves as the film’s biggest Maguffin, and ensures that what starts off as a taut, promising and jittery investigative thriller, gets caught up in an overly twisty who-is-fooling-who box of tricks in its third act, which is also where the pace starts to lag. The final minutes do provide a strong dismount however, as we realize that what we’ve been watching is not so much just a fiction loosely inspired by JFK’s assassination, but actually a subtly wrong-footing meditation on how it might feel to find yourself the “patsy” that Oswald always claimed to be (retrospectively, you can see how Beatty’s character is unwittingly playing into their hands a lot of the time). But when the ultimate architects of this elaborate plot are faceless, motiveless entities, hidden behind the smokescreen of a shady fictional Corporation, it’s difficult to really see how, if at all, the film repays the interest it borrows from the real-life assassination.

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  • BAD BLAKE | November 26, 2013 10:23 PMReply

    I bought this book :)

    http://img1.imagesbn dot com/p/9781932958522_p0_v1_s260x420.jpg

    peter travers 1000 best movies on dvd

    I went from A to Z

    and towards the end of the book 'winter kills' was one that caught my eye

    intoxicating atmosphere
    a clever script
    great performances jeff bridges.. john Huston and Anthony perkins

  • angel jonathan | November 26, 2013 5:47 PMReply

    Wow, kudos for not being snarky about "conspiracy theories" in this piece. Given 90% of the media coverage for the anniversary supporting the lone shooter hypothesis, quite an accomplishment indeed.

  • the sayer of the truth | November 24, 2013 4:36 PMReply

    50 years ago Lee Harvey Oswald became the biggest patsy in history, the real killer is probably still out there, now 75 years old and living on nothing but beluga caviar and pink champagne, what a bizarre world ! ! !.

  • Pandera | November 21, 2013 4:43 PMReply

    Parkland Hospital is not only the place where JFK died, but where his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died two days later, and also where Oswald's own assassin, Jack Ruby, also died four years later.

    Was it a conspiracy that all these people died in the same place, or was it something about Parkland that caused all these people to coincidentally die in the same place?

    Parkland has come under fire recently from government regulators, at one point losing its Medicare status, and is currently on 7 straight years of federal probation for patient care lapses and fraud. Many patients who come to Parkland die for no reason at all.

    It’s no coincidence. You can read about the intriguing back story about Parkland and the JFK assassination on the website, "The Parkland Orgy of Death."

  • William Urban | November 21, 2013 2:57 PMReply

    ("Peter Landesman is vehement in his personal conviction, about the truth of the lone gunman theory").

    Based on the above statement by director Peter Landesman, I doubt I will rush to the cinema to view his movie, "Parkland" regarding the assassination of President Kennedy tomorrow. Aside from the fact that I have invested 47 years of my life investigating this foul crime, through two Wars, (Vietnam/Yom Kippur) and two Branches of the Military, (US Army/US Navy) and having qualified "Expert" with weapons while in the military, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind, that a conspiracy WAS involved, in the murder of the 35th President.

    I have compared Oswald's Rifle Scores in the Marine Corps, with my Rifle Scores in the Army. I could shoot circles around Oswald and I was never even in the Marine Corps. I could not have done what Oswald was supposed to have done: (i.e. fire three shots in less than 6 seconds, inflicting two wounds on President Kennedy and five wounds on Governor Connelly). Nor, (by his own admission), could US Marine Corps Sniper and Vietnam Veteran, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock.

    Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, USMC, was the best "Sniper" we had in Vietnam. He single-handedly took out a Viet Cong sniper, (named the "Cobra"), who was raising hell with US Forces in the Danang area and later killed a North Vietnamese Army General with one shot through the head, at a great distance. In the case of the "Cobra", Hathcock stalked this elusive Viet Cong sniper for weeks, before finally pinning him down and killing him with a single shot through the Cobra's right eye.

    Normally Marines are considered the best, when it comes to competition shooting with other branches of the military. In Oswald's case, he fails miserably. Hathcock said before he died, not even he could have done what Oswald was supposed to have done, with 3 shots in just 5.6 seconds, with an old World War Two vintage Italian Rifle, that was considered absolutely worthless, (the bolt stuck, the windage was off, the leverage was off). The rifle that Oswald owned, (but did not fire), was called by the Italians during WWII, "The Rifle that never hurt anybody........on purpose".

    I would advise Peter Landesman to contact Professor Jim Marrs of Springtown, Texas, before he makes any more movies. Author, Journalist and Professor Jim Marrs spent 25 years investigating Kennedy's assassination before his book: "Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy" was published in 1990. He taught a course in "Assassinations" at the University of Texas, in Arlington, Texas, for 30 years. He is something of an expert, when it comes to this subject.

    Likewise, Peter Landesman should also make contact with former New York City Attorney, ("Solicitor" in England), Mark Lane. Attorney Mark Lane worked on John F. Kennedy's 1960 Presidential campaign and helped deliver the State of New York's 45 electoral votes in the General Election. Following the assassination, Mark Lane flew to Dallas, Texas and began his own investigation into the murder of the President, much to the displeasure of the Warren Commission, which was formed a week after the assassination. Mark Lane soon began coming up with eyewitnesse accounts of both the assassination and the murder of Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippet, which were far different, than the conclusions reached by the Warren Commission.

    Oswald's own Mother, Margarite Oswald, was so impressed with Attorney Mark Lane, that she retained him to represent her Son, Lee Harvey Oswald, before the Warren Commission, since Oswald obviously could not represent himself, having been silenced by Jack Ruby, when Ruby shot Oswald in the basement of the Dallas jail. Mark Lane went on to write the book: "Rush To Judgement", which was published in 1965 and became the first book to seriously question the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Since then, Mark Lane has published two additional books on this subject: "Plausable Denial: Was The CIA Involved In The Assassination Of President Kennedy" (1990) and "Last Word: My Indictment Of The CIA In The Assassination Of President Kennedy", (2007).

    Has Peter Landesman ever read the 888 page Warren Report? Or the 26 Volumes of Supporting Evidence, from which the final 888 page Report is drawn? If he has, (as I have), Peter Landesman will find numerous errors in the final 888 page report. He will find, (as I have), that much crucial testimony given in sworn avidavit's by eyewitnesses, was left out of the final 888 page report.

    He may even be forced to relinquish his personal conviction, about the truth of the lone-gunman theory.

    William P. Urban
    SGT US Army
    PO2 US Navy
    Vietnam (Quang Nam Province) 1970
    Yom Kippur (Suez Canal) 1974

  • MikeD | November 20, 2013 8:58 PMReply

    Interview with the assassin is awesome, especially the first half

  • RON KOVIC | November 26, 2013 10:26 PM

    Raymond J Barry is a real scene stealer in

    falling down
    the chamber
    and best of all..
    his indie spirit award nominated performance in STEEL CITY

  • Taylor Jones | November 20, 2013 7:26 PMReply

    Errol Morris's "The Umbrella Man" is nice and only six minutes long.

    There should be a link to the short film in an "errol morris umbrella man" Google search.

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