By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist November 20, 2013 at 2:09PM
“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” (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” (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.