Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Executive Action" filled with subtle drama

Cleveland Press November 15, 1973

"Executive Action" is a fictionalized suspense drama about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Its premise is that the killing was the result of a conspiracy by businessmen and politicians who felt that Kennedy was going too far in his policies and that Lee Harvey Oswald had nothing to do with the act but was set up as the fall guy.

While not thoroughly convincing it is consistently engrossing. What credence it does have is in its portrayal of the kind of people who could conceivably be involved in the planning. These are not wild-eyed fanatics given to polemics. These are not noisy speech makers or sinister cloak and dagger types or people with outward signs of being ready to slip off the deep end.

They are ordinary, practical, hard-headed business men; planners, doers and movers. The Watergate revelations uncovered the same sort of clean cut, ordinary types and it doesn't take too much imagination to project such types into acts of greater enormity.

"Executive Action" also convinces as it deals with the known facts about the the times, the actual people, the organizations and the documented deeds. What emerges is a picture of bureaucratic ineptness, a no-man's land of ignorance among the various police agencies -- the Secret Service, the FBI, the local police.

The movie is fleshed out with film clips from television coverage of the events prior to the assassination, the act itself and the aftermath. These are matched up with a low-key dramatization of the conspiracy.

The movie would be a fair suspense film even without its historical parallel. In fact, where the film suffers most is in its attempt to offer explanations that don't quite fit the events, or to offer no explanation at all.

The maneuvering of Oswald depends too much on a very fortunate set of circumstances. It is almost easier to believe his presence as being a matter of a huge single coincidence than the result of so many small coincidences.

The argument is also suggested that Oswald's killing by Jack Ruby was part of the conspiracy, but how it came about is ignored except for showing one of the conspirators hanging around outside Ruby's business place.

The notion that there was a conspiracy is shared by many and the film demonstrates why doubt has continued to exist -- the lack of any records or notes of Oswald's interrogation by Dallas police, the strong argument that three shots could not have been fired in the elapsed time by one man with the weapon found, the films that seem to indicate that the President was hit from different directions.

The purely fictional aspect of the story -- who the men were, the why of their plotting,the manner in which it was organized -- is dramatized quietly.

Burt Lancaster is the brains of the operation. The late Robert Ryan is a behind-the-scenes power and man of influence. Will Geer is an elder statesmen among who must be convinced, a character aptly described as an "elderly Brutus."

So as to explain the rationale of such an act Ryan and Lancaster present the arguments to Geer -- that a Kennedy dynasty has begun which will continue through the three brothers until 1984.

They argue that things will come to pass within a short time if Kennedy is not stopped, things which are counter to their (the conspirators') interests -- opposition to mergers under the anti-trust act, support of the black movement, support of the nuclear test ban treaty and removal of all U. S. forces from Vietnam.

All of these are shown in film clips with the final bit -- Kennedy's speech announcing the troop withdrawal as the deciding point for Geer.

The parts are played calmly, quietly, efficiently, professionally. With the knowledge that this was Ryan's last film there is a special poignancy as he speaks wearily that soon this will all be over, and then slips into the famous passage from "Richard II" " . . . and nothing we can call our own but death, and that small model of the barren earth which serves as paste and cover to our bones. For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings."