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Hollywood and the Kennedy Assassination

Movies that offered alternative explanations for JFK’s death

Nov. 18, 2013
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Most anyone living at the time can clearly recall hearing the news on that Friday afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Little wonder that several movies have dealt with those events in Dallas, including Parkland (2013) and the unheralded The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964) and Ruby (1992). Best known are Oliver Stone’s brilliant JFK (1991) and Executive Action (1973). Both shocked the nation and gave millions second thoughts.

JFK benefitted from nuanced work by a big-name cast and skillfully layered cinematography. It was a hit despite its 205 minutes, generating controversy by examining the murder through the eyes of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). His back-and-forth with businessman Clay Shaw, aka Clay Bertrand (Tommy Lee Jones), was gripping. Garrison charged Shaw with participating in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, and brought him to trial in 1969. A gruesome highlight was playing the startling Abraham Zapruder film in open court, showing the president’s head blown apart.

The movie, nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, implies that Lyndon B. Johnson was part of an anti-Kennedy coup under which he would become president. This added fuel to the fire and helped a number of critics to denounce the film.

At trial, Garrison debunks the assertion that a single bullet could wound Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connelly, offering evidence of three gunmen and Shaw’s involvement. But despite his emotionally eloquent summation, the jury acquits Shaw.

Perhaps an even more compelling point of view was presented in Executive Action. Compact and hard-hitting, it affirmed in a methodical manner that Oswald was not the actual killer but was set up to take the fall. Directed by David Miller with a screenplay by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, Executive Action maintains that the assassination was plotted by industrialists (Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer, John Anderson and Gilbert Green). They feared JFK’s plan to withdraw from Vietnam, his hoped-for nuclear test ban with Russia and his embrace of the burgeoning African American civil rights movement.

The chilling film was full of details about the carefully choreographed murder. These included dictating the route of the motorcade through Dallas to ensure its slow speed—enabling three teams of painstakingly prepared professional hit men experienced in “black operations” to carry it out. All of the gunmen earned big money and escaped. 

The idea for Executive Action belonged to Donald Sutherland, who played the all-knowing, mysterious “X” in Stone’s JFK. He originally was to star in and produce Executive Action, and enlisted the help of assassination conspiracy authors Mark Lane (Rush to Judgment) and Donald Freed (Secret Honor); the film is based on Lane’s book.

Seasoned journalists covering the assassination bought the Warren Commission hokum about Oswald and the “magic bullet theory,” and most refused to credit JFK or Executive Action for insights they, themselves, never had. Many film critics also accepted the Commission’s findings and were lukewarm about both films. But JFK and Executive Action filled a void and told the story as many Americans imagined it happened.


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