A comparison of ”JFK” and ”Executive Action”
JFK raised exactly the sort of stink a director like Oliver Stone dreams about. And in the bargain, he got to replay his favorite role: the lone martyr cutting a cinematic swath through a swamp of lies. All in all, JFK was such a PR bonanza that it’s surprising no one had tackled the subject in a commercial film before.
But wait a minute. Someone did. Way back in 1973, Executive Action sketched out almost exactly the same conspiracy theory as Stone’s film, this time as a form of speculative fiction. And while the earlier movie focuses on the villainous plotters rather than the good-guy investigators of JFK, enough of the same ground is covered — and in a similar enough style — that Executive Action has to be considered one of JFK’s prime touchstones. That’s if you’re kindly disposed toward Oliver Stone. If you’re not, it looks a little, um, conspiratorial.
Complicating the matter is that JFK is by far the better movie in terms of drama, entertainment, and sheer tonnage of information. Executive Action, despite impressive lefty credentials, is as compelling as a lecture on rocks. The screenplay is by Dalton Trumbo (one of the Hollywood 10 jailed for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947) and based on a story cowritten by Mark Lane, pioneer conspiracy theorist and coproducer of the remarkable 1966 documentary Rush to Judgment. Heading the cast of main characters — oil execs, CIA spooks, and other far-right muckamucks who conceive and carry out the Dallas ”action” — are Burt Lancaster, Will Geer, and (in his last film) Robert Ryan, fine actors and vocal liberals all.
All for naught. Under journeyman director David Miller (Lonely Are the Brave), Executive Action aims for the docudrama tension that won Costa-Gavras’ 1969 Z an Oscar, but both pacing and script are unforgivably stodgy. The low budget shows in bargain-bin secondary performances (Oscar Oncidi as Jack Ruby is laughably bad). Worse, the movie simply stops dead every time Lancaster turns to another character and lays out exactly what will happen, who will do it, and why — in other words, everything that Mark Lane claims to have found out. Something tells me conspirators don’t actually talk this way. Still, the inexorable fact of Dealey Plaza gives Action a certain oomph as it rolls toward Nov. 22. And the cabal it posits — an unholy alliance of big business, anti-Castro Cubans, the CIA, the FBI, and Pentagon hawks — is the same crew rounded up by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in Stone’s JFK (in both films, the mob is curiously absent).
There are other similarities. Scenes in which an Oswald impersonator travels around Dallas prior to the assassination, picking arguments and getting noticed, are filmed almost identically in Action and JFK. So are darkroom scenes in which the supposedly bogus backyard photo of Oswald is rigged up. Then, too, many of the sections in Stone and Zachary Sklar’s script consist of Garrison telling his troops exactly what happened, who did it, and why. Even the score is similar.
The difference is that, for all his vast pretensions, Stone is a born filmmaker. JFK bombards the viewer with visual and sonic information overload, but you can’t take your eyes off it; even in video’s cramped quarters, it gooses you with the process of discovery. Is it propaganda, existing solely to convince? Of course it is — and on that level it’s as aesthetically brilliant (if not nearly as ethically suspect) as Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 gift to Nazism, Triumph of the Will. Part of the reason Stone works so hard to dazzle, though, is that he doesn’t really respect his audience. The condescension screams out in the embarrassingly hokey home scenes with Costner and Sissy Spacek (these do play poorly on video, like a ham-handed TV movie) and in the historical revisionism that results in outright lies such as Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in mid-speech.
The sad irony is that you don’t have to buy JFK’s more hysterical conjectures (Lyndon did it!) to be convinced that the lone-gunman theory smells to high hell. But without Stone’s genuine skill and flair for promotion, you’re left with the comatose earnestness of Executive Action. Someone should make this movie a third time, with all of Stone’s talent and none of his ego. Until then, you might want to pick up one of the many books on the subject; a good start would be Jim Marrs’ Crossfire, probably the best conspiracy Baedeker and the bedrock source for many of Stone’s facts. That way you’ll be doing the one thing JFK believes its viewers incapable of: thinking for themselves. Executive Action: D+ JFK: B