Executive Action (1973)

PG   |    |  Crime, Drama, History


Executive Action (1973) Poster

Rogue intelligence agents, right-wing politicians, greedy capitalists, and free-lance assassins plot and carry out the JFK assassination in this speculative agitprop.

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6.7/10
2,218

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  • Executive Action (1973)
  • Burt Lancaster in Executive Action (1973)
  • Burt Lancaster in Executive Action (1973)
  • Executive Action (1973)
  • Burt Lancaster in Executive Action (1973)
  • Paul Carr in Executive Action (1973)

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15 August 2010 | dougdoepke
A Closer Look at Some of the Background
What makes the Kennedy assassination so fascinating to me is the conflicting evidence both for and against a lone assassin. This film develops one version of conspiracy theory, and a fairly plausible one if you believe the evidence weighs in a conspiratorial direction.

The version here, i.e. ruthless right-wing oligarchs, has had historically to compete with the also popular organized-crime-did-it theory. However, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive, though combining them may be too unwieldy to be plausible. Nevertheless, this version does appeal to the ruthlessness with which power is known to be wielded in our upper echelons. As some historians point out, the assassination itself marks the end of America's post-war age of innocence.

Judged strictly as a movie, the sinister intrigues come across as darkly entertaining. I can understand that lone-assassin defenders would despise the contents and the assurance with which they're served up. Nonetheless, the movie presents a fascinating narrative of deadly machinations at the highest levels. If the acting seems restrained, that's likely so as not to compete with the storyline, which of course remains uppermost. Taken strictly as entertainment, Leonard Maltin's "Bomb" and "dull" thus come across as judgments based on political opinion instead of movie-making art, and should be an embarrassment to his professional reputation.

Perhaps some background to the movie would be helpful to younger viewers. By 1973, the year of the film's release, critics, such as Mark Lane's 1966 Rush to Judgment, had shredded much of the Warren Commission Report (1964), putting the government's lone assassin theory on the strictly defensive. District Attorney Jim Garrison's independent New Orleans investigation in 1967 also lent legitimacy to critics of the Report. Just as importantly, government's credibility on matters of state had been undermined by events in Vietnam, especially as exposed in the Pentagon Papers of 1971. In short, many Americans were ready to believe in 1973 what they weren't ready to believe in 1963, namely that the official Report was an expedient cover-up, and that the true facts surrounding Kennedy's murder had yet to be revealed.

Executive Action stepped into the breach, hoping to reach the non-book reading public and alert them to what critics on the left felt was a likely version of the true facts. Note that except for the positioning of the shooters, other details—especially the network connections beyond Ryan and Lancaster—remain unspecified. Thus, this film version provides a framework in which elements of the CIA or other rogue elements of government, or even organized crime, can be slotted. Wisely, the movie doesn't provide more than this generalized, non-specific framework.

My recollection is that the movie never got beyond a limited release, and mainly to urban centers. So the goal of reaching a broader American public was likely not realized. I also recall information sheets being passed out to ticket-buyers, detailing some points made in the movie. But, whatever the reasons, this independent production failed to reach the numbers of Oliver Stone's 1991 recounting of the Garrison investigation. However by that time, a new generation and three decades had intervened and memories had faded.

But, if films like Executive Action continue to tantalize, it's because the government has never had an interest in really pursuing the case. That's understandable in the instance of the Warren Report. Keep in mind that because of Oswald's supposed communist connections, there was a real possibility in 1964 of nuclear war breaking out if a Soviet plot were exposed. Better a cover- up investigation that might otherwise go who knows where than millions of atomized dead. Yes, indeed, that's understandable. But what about the finding of 1979's House Select Committee on Assassinations, convened because of renewed public interest in the case. The Committee concluded rather shockingly that "… on the basis of evidence available to it (meaning the Committee) that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy." !! "Probably a conspiracy"-- Quite an official declaration after years of asserting otherwise.

On the other hand, it's revealing that there was never any follow-up by an agency of government following the House's nominal overturning of the Warren Report. In fact, I think few people are even aware of the government's now paradoxical position on the 20th century's leading unsolved murder. The House finding was simply shoved under the rug and forgotten. Thus the crime continues to haunt the nation's background like a wandering ghost too toxic for the government to finally track down. As a result, movies like Executive Action, for all its speculative dimension, will continue to entertain and provoke and, within limits, inform.

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