A narrator states that when President Lyndon Johnson was asked about the Kennedy Assassination and the Warren Commission report, he said he doubted the findings of the Commission. The narration ends with the mention that the segment did not run on television and was cut from a program about Johnson, at his own request.
At a gathering in June 1963, shadowy industrial, political and former US intelligence figures discuss their growing dissatisfaction with the Kennedy administration. In the plush surroundings of lead conspirator Robert Foster (Robert Ryan), he and the others try to persuade Harold Ferguson (Will Geer), a powerful oil magnate dressed in white, to back their plans for an assassination of Kennedy. He remains unconvinced, saying, "I don't like such schemes. They're only tolerable when necessary, and only permissible when they work." James Farrington (Burt Lancaster), a black ops specialist, is also among the group: He shows Ferguson and others that a careful assassination of a U.S. President can be done under certain conditions, and refers to the murders of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley as examples, and includes assassination attempts of others including Roosevelt in 1933, referring to the practice as "executive action".
In the Mojave Desert, a hit squad practice shooting moving targets at medium-to-long range. One of the shooters says that he can only guarantee the operation's success if he fires from vantage point at target moving at or under 15 miles per hour.
The lead conspirators, Farrington and Foster, discuss preparations for the assassination. Obtaining Ferguson's approval is crucial to the conspirators, although Farrington proceeds to organize two shooting teams in anticipation that Ferguson will change his mind. Ferguson, meanwhile, watches news reports and becomes highly concerned at Kennedy's increasingly "liberal" direction: action on civil rights, Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and nuclear disarmament. The deciding moment comes when he is watching an anti-Kennedy news report on the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. It is followed by Kennedy's October 1963 decision, National Security Action Memorandum #263 to withdraw all US advisers from Vietnam by the end of 1965, effectively ending America's direct involvement in the Vietnam War. Ferguson calls Foster and tells him he now supports their project.
Foster and Farrington discuss their murky paranoid fears about the future of the country under President Kennedy, and the security of ruling-class white people around the world. Foster forecasts the population of the world in 2000 at 7 billion, the majority of them non-white; " swarming out of their breeding grounds into Europe and North America." He sees victory in Vietnam as an opportunity to control the developing world and reduce its population to 550 million, adding that they can then apply the same "birth-control" methods to unwanted groups in the US: poor whites, Asians, blacks and Latinos. Foster, it seems, is privy to plans known to the CIA, or perhaps knowledge of even more secret information unknown to Ferguson, a civilian.
The scene of the shooting is described. As news of the assassination reaches the conspirators, the film describes the effects. Farrington and his assistant discuss the fallout from the assassination, especially how to deal with the fact that Oswald has survived. Farrington contacts nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who stalks and kills Oswald.
While the real assassins leave Dallas, the conspirators work to cover up the evidence. They discuss the political fallout in Washington, D.C., concerned about retribution from Robert F. Kennedy and the "believability" of the plot. Foster states that "Bobby Kennedy is not thinking as Attorney General but as a grieving brother. By the time he recovers it will be too late." The conspirators agree that people will believe in the story because "they want to believe the story." Soon after, Foster receives a call from Farrington's assistant: Farrington has died of a heart attack "at Parkland Hospital." The conspirators are now insulated from the link to the group that committed the killings.
Their work is not quite finished. A photo collage is shown of 18 material witnesses, all but two of whom, it says, died from unnatural causes within three years of the assassination. A voice-over says that an actuary of the British newspaper The Sunday Times calculated the probability that all these people who witnessed the assassination would die within that period of time to be 100,000 trillion to one.Burt Lancaster as James Farrington
Robert Ryan as Robert Foster
Will Geer as Harold Ferguson
John Anderson as Halliday
Ed Lauter as Operations Chief
Donald Sutherland has been credited as having the idea for the film, and for hiring Lane and Freed to write the screenplay. Sutherland planned to act in and produce Executive Action; however, he abandoned the project and took a role in another film after failing to obtain financing for the film.
Original music for the film was composed by Randy Edelman.
Released two weeks before the tenth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, Executive Action opened to a storm of controversy about the events shown. It then was pulled from many theaters in its first and second weeks of showing because of the bad press. Many television stations also refused to run trailers for the film, including WNBC-TV in New York City.
Besides the negative press, the film was also generally panned. Pauline Kael called it a "feeble, insensitive fictionalization ... It's a dodo-bird of a movie, the winner of the Tora! Tora! Tora!' prize in miniature. With matchlessly dull performances ..." Leonard Maltin declares it a Bomb in his Movie Guide, calling it an "excruciatingly dull thriller [that] promised to clear the air about JFK's assassination but was more successful at clearing theaters."
In contrast, The New York Times gave it a positive review, its critic Nora Sayre writing, "Executive Action, ... offers a tactful, low-key blend of fact and invention. The film makers do not insist that they have solved John Kennedy's murder; instead, they simply evoke what might have happened, ... The film's sternest and strongest point is that only a crazed person acting on his own would have been acceptable to the American public — which, at that time, certainly did not want to believe in a conspiracy."
Meanwhile, Roger Ebert was equivocal, giving the film two stars and calling it "a dramatized rewrite of all those old assassination conspiracy books." Ebert stated, "There’s something exploitative and unseemly in the way this movie takes the real blood and anguish and fits it neatly into a semi-documentary thriller." He added that "Executive Action doesn't seem much to want to entertain" and called Miller's direction "colorless." In a positive comment, Ebert wrote: "It has the power, of evoking what will probably remain, for most of us, the most stunning public moment of our lives: the moment when we first learned that the President had been shot."
Executive Action is one of at least five American films to present a dramatization portraying the Kennedy assassination as a conspiracy (the others being Oliver Stone's 1991 movie JFK; director John MacKenzie's 1992 film Ruby; the 1984 William Tannen film Flashpoint; and Neil Burger's 2002 pseudo-documentary Interview with the Assassin).
Despite many similarities of the plotline to JFK, Executive Action presents a far more direct and unemotional account of its own touted conspiracy than Stone's film. The film is directed in an almost-documentary style and was filmed on a small budget, despite the presence of two big Hollywood names, Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. Another unique attribute is that the story is told entirely from the perspective of the conspirators. This film was also the last movie for Ryan, who would die of cancer four months before the film's release.
The film was not seen again until the late 1980s and early 1990s, after its legal release to TV and home video. Executive Action was released on DVD on October 23, 2007 in the United States and Canada.