Executive Action (1973) and JFK (1991)

In 1957, I encountered my first conspiracy theory.  According to my father, American intelligence had broken the Japanese code six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  And so, by the first of December, 1941, they knew that the attack was imminent.  But they did nothing about it.  The reason, my father said, was that the American people were against entering World War II, and so Roosevelt, who wanted to get America into the war, let the attack happen, knowing that an inflamed public would then demand retaliation.  I was in the sixth grade at the time, and so naturally I believed what my father told me.

I no longer believe that story, of course.  But what I now find interesting is that no one has ever made a movie about it, one that dramatizes the conspiracy, in which we see Roosevelt conniving with his fellow conspirators to suppress the intelligence that an attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent, motivated by all the profits that will be had by makers of munitions, who in turn will contribute to his re-election campaign.  More importantly, there is glory in being a wartime president, most conducive to holding on to power.  Conspiracy-theory movies can be fun, so why not a movie like that?

But first, I suppose I must define a few terms.  As we all know, conspiracies go on in the world, as when some Roman senators conspired to assassinate Julius Caesar.  But that’s an historical fact.  On the other hand, it is only a theory that the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko was the result of a conspiracy involving Vladimir Putin.  But we do not call it a “conspiracy theory,” for to do so would not only imply that the theory is false, but also that those that believe it are goofy; whereas this is a theory that may be true, and one in which it is reasonable to accept.

However, much in the way that the demeaning expression “colored person” has been transformed into the acceptable “person of color,” so too can we eliminate the pejorative connotation of “conspiracy theory” by changing the order the words to “theory about a conspiracy,” which can be regarded as neutral as to whether the theory is true or not, and without disparaging those that might embrace it.

That being done, however, we must now distinguish between conspiracy theories that are real from those that are fictional.  It may seem that by definition, all conspiracy theories are fictional.  However, by “real conspiracy theory,” I mean those that a lot of people believe to be true, whereas by “fictional conspiracy theory,” I mean those that are made up simply for our entertainment in the form of a novel or a movie, usually bearing some similarity to a real conspiracy theory.

For example, there is a real conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked.  It inspired the fictional conspiracy theory in Capricorn One (1977), in which a mission to Mars is faked.  Likewise, there is a real conspiracy theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the man that killed John F. Kennedy, and it inspired the fictional conspiracy theory in The Parallax View (1974), in which Warren Beatty plays a reporter who investigates one political assassination only to end up becoming an Oswald-like patsy in another.

However, the distinction between real and fictional conspiracy theories is not absolute.  There are real conspiracy theories concerning Area 51 and UFOs, in which the government is thought to know all about aliens from another planet, but is determined to keep us from learning about it.  The movies Men in Black (1997) and The X-Files (1998) are based on these real conspiracy theories, but involve fictional characters and events.

Most real conspiracy theories are never made into a movie in the classic Hollywood sense, the kind that is shown in major theaters in the United States, featuring well-known stars, the kind of movie that might even be considered for an Academy Award of one sort or another.  They do find an outlet, however, in other forms.  For example, there are the straight-to-video movies, such as The Death of Vince Foster:  What Really Happened? (1995).  There is Horseman Without a Horse (2002-2003), a television miniseries in Arabic and shown in the Middle East, based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is about the Jewish plan for global domination.  And there is Paul Is Dead (2002), a movie made in Germany in which a young boy gets all into the conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney died in the 1960s and was replaced by a double.  And a lot of such second-rate movies are documentaries, as opposed to dramas.

The conspiracy theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the assassin of John F. Kennedy is the grand exception, having been made into two mainstream movies.  In 1991, Oliver Stone wrote and directed JFK, a movie about New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his investigation into the assassination of Kennedy, which provoked strong negative reactions from politicians and journalists alike.  Many books have been written arguing that Oswald was not the assassin of Kennedy, including the two on which this movie was based, but the negative reaction people had to JFK proves how much more powerful a movie can be than the written word.  The movie is populated with major stars, not just those playing the leading roles, but also small roles as well.  This makes the characters they portray seem important in a way that lesser known stars would not, which in turn makes their role in the conspiracy seem more believable.  Such is movie logic.

The movie touches on all the standard elements of the conspiracy theory.  There is the faked picture of Oswald holding a gun, the reference to the live oak that would have blocked his view, the fact that it would have been difficult for him to get off three shots that quickly and accurately with a bolt-action rifle, the single-bullet theory, Oswald’s calling attention to himself at a shooting range, the grassy knoll, the Zapruder film, and more, much more.  It does so quite effectively.

At the same time, the movie is exhausting.  Have you ever known someone that was into a conspiracy theory?  You quickly learn never to bring the subject up, kicking yourself when you accidently touch on it, for you unleash a torrent.  As an example, let us consider the theory that the moon landing was faked, and let us imagine a hypothetical friend who is all into that theory.  If you are old enough, you probably saw the moon landing live on television, were impressed, and then went on with your life.  If you are younger, you nevertheless saw the footage, but at a later time.  And that’s about the extent of your knowledge of the event.  But your friend has about six or seven books on his bookshelf, telling of how it was all faked.  He has read them at least three times.  They are underlined with notes in the margins, full of cross-references.

Do you think you have any chance of winning an argument with him about the moon landing?  That’s a silly question.  You can’t even hold up your side of the conversation.  All you know is what you saw on television, whereas he is overwhelming you with “facts.”

“And that’s why the Bilker report was suppressed,” he asserts in the middle of his tirade.

“What’s the Bilker report?” you ask.

He is appalled.  “No wonder you believe we put men on the moon.  You just accept whatever you they tell you.  You probably believe that Judith Crenshaw’s death was an accident.”

“Who is that?” you foolishly ask.

“Oh, my God!  You don’t know who she is?” he exclaims with exasperation.  “She was the one who was out there in Arizona where they filmed the whole thing.  She was supposed to testify at a congressional hearing, but drowned in her bathtub the day before.”

That is what it feels like watching JFK.

There is a Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) who is a Deep Throat character.  When he starts talking to Garrison, we are presented with a fusillade of “facts” that will make your knees buckle, so it is fortunate that most people watch this movie sitting down.  He makes the point that the “How?” and the “Who?” are of secondary importance.  The real question is “Why?”  The principal answer to that question parallels the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory I referred to above.  Just as allowing Pearl Harbor to happen got America into World War II, which meant big profits for the weapon manufacturers, and secured Roosevelt’s re-election; so too was the assassination of Kennedy intended to prevent him from getting us out of Vietnam, for there was much money to be made by getting us into a war over there.  Kennedy had already cost the business community a lot of money by refusing to invade Cuba, and they didn’t want him to do the same with Vietnam.  That is why the movie begins with Eisenhower’s farewell address, warning of the military-industrial complex, and ends by noting all the money that has been spent in fighting the Vietnam War.  Mr. X makes the ultimate declaration:

The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is for war.   The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers. The state needs war in order to exist.

It sounds as though Mr. X might have been the author of the notorious book, Report from Iron Mountain, which transcends even the profit motive in arguing that war and the threat of war meet the needs of society to such a degree that it would be difficult for society to exist without it.

But mostly it’s about money.  From that point of view, the movie argues that when those on the right accused Kennedy of being soft on communism, their real concern was that he was likely to sign peace treaties with adversaries rather than go to war with them, thereby cutting into profits.

But there is another motive, connected with the first, expressed by Guy Banister (Edward Asner).  “Goddamn peace treaties!” he says.  “That’s what happens when you let the niggers vote.  They get together with the Jews and the Catholics and elect an Irish bleeding heart.”  In this way, the war-profits motive is connected with that of Protestant white supremacy.

And this second motive blends with a third, which also angered Banister:  resentment over the Bay of Pigs, consisting of anti-Castro Cubans, of course, and American intelligence agents that felt betrayed when Kennedy failed to follow through on that invasion.

Right-wing animosity toward African Americans and Jews is still with us, but the one about the Catholics seems quaint.  Looking back, it is hard to believe how much anti-papist sentiment there was in those days.  The fear was that the Pope would tell Kennedy what to do, on pain of excommunication if he refused to obey.  Kennedy even had to give a speech, declaring that he would resign the presidency should he receive an order from the Pope that was inconsistent with America’s best interests.

Today, conservatives love Catholics, at least when it comes to putting them on the Supreme Court, where there are now six Catholic justices, vastly exceeding their proportion in the general population.  The reason is clear.  Catholics believe that birth control is a sin, so a fortiori they believe abortion is a sin.  Now, a given Catholic may nevertheless be pro-choice, being unwilling to impose his religious beliefs on others.  But as far as conservatives are concerned, there will remain a residual sentiment of sin.  And so, regardless of the political stance that may have been taken by any of the Catholic justices on the Supreme Court, conservatives are content in their supposition that the prevailing attitude of those justices is that abortion is evil.

JFK is a movie about a real conspiracy theory in its pure form, for all the characters in the movie are based on real people.  It looks at the Kennedy assassination from the outside, from the standpoint of an investigator trying to piece together the elements of the conspiracy.  An earlier movie, Executive Action (1973), looks at it from the inside.  Whereas the number of people in on the conspiracy in JFK is beyond our ability to count, the number of conspirators in Executive Action is small.  At one point in the movie, they are all in one room, apart from those that will eventually be hired to do the shooting.  In JFK, you sometimes get the impression that in order to put all the conspirators in one place, you would have needed a football stadium.  The characters in Executive Action are fictional.  However, they are presented as representing the men that actually did conspire to have Kennedy assassinated, and so the movie still qualifies as a real conspiracy theory.  The conspiracy-theories dramatized by these two movies are almost the same, but there are slight differences.  In both movies, people quote Shakespeare, giving these movies the proper tone.

For the most part, Executive Action works and is entertaining.  First, there is the introductory part, which shows us the motivation of those that want to kill Kennedy.  We see a montage consisting of a refinery, an oil field, a factory, a commodities exchange, a bank, safe deposit boxes, and a board room.  Personifying these business interests is Ferguson (Will Geer), who will be putting up the money to fund the assassination if he gives his OK.  He is the one the other conspirators have to persuade.  Therefore, as with JFK, money is the primary motive for Kennedy’s assassination.

The persuasion begins with a prediction that must have been a conservative’s nightmare in the early 1960s:  three successive presidencies, each lasting eight years, consisting of John F. Kennedy, followed by his brother Robert, who in turn would be followed by Edward.  Whichever Kennedy was president, the other two brothers would occupy positions of power, based on a coalition of “big-city machines, labor, Jews, Negroes, liberals, and the press.”  The ideological agenda of this coalition would be socialism at the expense of business interests, a weakening of American military might by making nuclear arms deals with the Soviet Union, loss of influence in foreign affairs by pulling out of Vietnam, and loss of white privilege.  (Dalton Trumbo must have enjoyed writing the screenplay for this movie as a form of retaliation for what the right put him through earlier in his career.)  And so, as in JFK, we have the same secondary motive concerning race and religion, except for the absence of any expressed concern about Catholics.  The third motive, resentment about the Bay of Pigs, is present as well.

I also liked the part where the chief conspirator, Farrington (Burt Lancaster), points out that whereas Europeans will readily believe that there is a conspiracy behind an assassination of a major political figure, Americans are used to the idea that assassinations of presidents are carried out by mentally unbalanced individuals.  With that in mind, Farrington conceives a plan that will point to just such an individual as being the lone assassin, fitting right into what the American people are predisposed to accept.

The men trying to persuade Ferguson seem to have a lot of knowledge about intelligence agencies, most prominent of which are Farrington and Foster (Robert Ryan).  When they are alone, Foster expresses his concern to Farrington about the population explosion:

The real problem is this, James.  In two decades there will be seven billion human beings on this planet, most of them brown, yellow, or black.  All of them hungry; all of them determined to love.  They’ll swarm out of their breeding grounds into Europe and North America.  Hence Vietnam.  An all-out effort there will give us control of South Asia for decades to come.  And with proper planning, we can reduce the population to 550 million by the end of the century.

Needless to say, you could not get the population in South Asia down to that number in that time frame by birth control alone, even if you sterilized every female in the region, so we have to figure he is planning on more drastic means of population reduction.  He continues:

Well, someone has to do it.  Not only will the nations affected be better off, but the techniques developed there can be used to reduce our own excess population:  Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, poverty-prone whites, and so forth.

Meanwhile, we see scenes of Ferguson watching television, in which he sees Kennedy talking about the test-ban treaty with the Soviets and getting out of Vietnam, and in which he sees Martin Luther King giving his “I have a dream” speech, followed by black people marching and singing “We Shall Overcome.”  He slowly becomes angrier and angrier until finally he gives the OK.

In planning the operation, the conspirators set out to make Oswald, who apparently has some mysterious connections with intelligence agencies, their “sponsor,” which is to say, their patsy.  He will take the fall while three real assassins make their getaway.  They even get an Oswald look-alike to help create incriminating evidence.  It is interesting to see the mechanics of the operation being planned and carried out.  Some of it strains credulity, however, as when the conspirators sneak into Oswald’s garage, that conveniently happens to be unlocked, in order to steal his rifle, so that one of the assassins can use it and then leave it behind in the book depository.

Another weak link in the movie comes when Oswald shoots a policeman.  Watching the report on television, Tim, an associate of Farrington, says, “That wasn’t in the scenario,” indicating that they did not expect Oswald to do that.  Farrington tries to explain why Oswald would kill a policeman, but it is a bit lame.  After all, according to this movie, Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, so it is hard to believe that he would panic and kill a policeman, whereas that is precisely something a man might do who had just assassinated the president.

But I was willing to let that one slide.  It is the part about Jack Ruby that constitutes the weakest part of this conspiracy theory.  The explanation Ruby gave as to why he shot Oswald was that he was upset that Oswald killed Kennedy.  This movie should have let it be just that.  Instead, we get a scene in which Tim goes to talk to Ruby, so as to make Ruby part of the conspiracy, but we are not privy to their conversation.  Nor do Tim and Farrington refer to whatever it was Tim supposedly said to Ruby when they watch him shoot Oswald on television.  We can’t help but conclude that the reason we do not get to hear what Tim says to Ruby is that Dalton Trumbo could not come up with anything that would make sense.  The whole point of this movie is to show us in detail what might have happened and to do so in a way that makes the theory credible. By leaving the conversation between Tim and Ruby out, the movie as much as admits that it cannot explain this part, which detracts from its believability.

At the end of the movie, while enjoying a game of pool, Foster receives a phone call from Tim.  After he hangs up, he tells his companions that Farrington just died of a heart attack, while he continues his turn at the pool table.  Now, Farrington is a fictional character.  Therefore, his death and Foster’s nonchalance in hearing about it were put into this movie as a matter of choice.  This leads us to ask, what purpose does it serve?  Inasmuch as this movie has us in a frame of mind as to suspect that nothing happens by chance, that all events are guided by sinister purposes, we cannot help but suspect that Farrington’s death was arranged as a way of guaranteeing the security of the remaining conspirators.

This is followed immediately by an epilogue, in which we are told that eighteen of the material witnesses to the assassination died within the next three years, many of them violently.  The implication is that the conspirators saw to it that these people died so as to impede any investigation into what really happened.  One wonders if the witnesses to those deaths were then killed off.  You can never be too careful.

But now let us address the observation made above that most real conspiracy theories are never made into mainstream American movies like JFK and Executive Action.  Given this relatively small sample, it is difficult to draw any conclusions with certainty.  Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder if making these two movies was acceptable because the villains were on the right, whereas having the villains be on the left would preclude turning a real conspiracy theory into a mainstream, dramatic film.  This would explain why the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory was never made into a movie, since the chief villain would have been Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic icon, even though the motive of getting the country into a war for the profiteering that would ensue would be the same as in the Kennedy movies.

In both Kennedy movies, the villains on the right express anti-Semitic attitudes, in which they regard the Jews, among others, as causing them problems.  But we know we will never see a movie in which the Jews are the conspirators.  For example, there is no way a movie producer in Hollywood will get himself a copy of Holocaust Denial for Dummies and make a movie dramatizing the way the Jews fabricated the holocaust, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Scarlett Johansson.

In JFK, there is the suggestion that the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are a continuation of the conspiracy.  When Garrison wakes up his long-suffering wife (Sissy Spacek) to tell her that Bobby Kennedy has just been shot, she finally becomes convinced of the conspiracy too.  “You were right,” she says. “It hasn’t ended yet.”  Then they proceed to have the best sex they’ve had in months.

At the trial of Clay Shaw, Garrison argues that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed because they were also opposed to war, threatening the war-profiteering that was in progress, while it was made to appear that they were “also killed by such lonely crazed men.”  But he’s not through.  “How many more political murders,” he asks, “disguised as heart attacks, suicides, cancers, drug overdoses?  How many plane and car crashes will occur before they are exposed for what they are?”

But the conspiracy theories that have been promoted concerning the assassination attempts on George Wallace and Ronald Reagan will probably never make it to the big screen.  It’s not that the villains are said to be on the left.  Rather, the alleged conspirators are on the right, just not the far right where Reagan and Wallace were.  But since they are to the left of Reagan and Wallace, that’s left enough to preclude a conspiracy-theory movie about either of these two assassination attempts.  Or maybe there is simpler explanation:  failed assassination attempts just aren’t interesting enough to warrant the production of a major film.

However, were this the sole consideration, we should expect to have seen a mainstream 9/11 trutherism movie by now.  One version of this theory is that George W. Bush and other politicians on the right knew that the attack on September 11, 2001 was imminent, but they let it happen so that America would invade the Middle East, with the usual war-profiteering motive underlying that, along with the glory of being a wartime president.  There are the various versions of Loose Change 9/11, beginning in 2005, but they are basically internet videos and documentaries besides.  Therefore, even if I am correct in my supposition that right-wing villains are a necessary condition for the making of a Hollywood movie about a real conspiracy theory, it is not a sufficient condition.  In fact, so few are the mainstream movies depicting real conspiracy theories that the sufficient condition, whatever it is, must be difficult to attain.

A birtherism movie, on the other hand is out of the question, as the villains would have to be on the left, creating a phony birth certificate so that we wouldn’t know that Obama was really born in Kenya, thereby allowing him to become president of the United States.  And that’s too bad, because I can envision a scene in which some right-wing politician says, “Of course, Obama was born in Kenya.  That’s why he believes in Kenyansian economics!”