American history has been marked by a “air of heated exaggeration, suspicion, and conspiratorial imagination,” as historian Richard Hofstadter put it in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (though not exclusively in American history). According to a paper he wrote in 1964, Hofstadter drew a line from the rise of anti-Catholic conspiracy theories to the McCarthy era’s anti-communist fervor over the Illuminati and Freemasonry. The Kennedy assassination theories that began to surface immediately after the president’s death in November of 1963 through the internet-fueled conspiratorial thinking that has become a prominent part of this year’s presidential election because of QAnon would have been easy for Hofstadter to extend today.
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Conspiracy theories have a complicated connection with movies. Documentary films have been used to promote everything from 9/11 conspiracy theories to COVID-19 disinformation to supposed UFO cover-ups to whatever bullshit Dinesh D’Souza is attempting to peddle on any given day. The same factors that can lead to bad journalism — and conspiracy theories often fall apart when examined closely — can also prove appealing to writers. It’s easy to become enamored with the idea that the world is rife with evil forces and cunning conspiracies. To keep things simple, we’ve only included political-themed conspiracy theory films on this list. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, isn’t in the same league as The Insider and Michael Clayton, all of which deal with corporate conspiracies, both real and fictitious.)
Even though a statement cannot be taken literally, it can nevertheless be taken symbolically. “Style has more to do with the way ideas are believed than with the truth or untruth of their content,” says Hofstadter. In the proper hands, movies based on conspiracy theories may elicit a deeper sense of skepticism and discomfort. They, too, may be a part of it. Without the Watergate-inspired films that followed, our distrust of the government would not have grown as much as it did. We’ll never know for sure. We may, however, examine the issue by seeing some interesting films that are based on the darkest corners of political debate.
15. Executive Action (1973)
This Dalton Trumbo-scripted docudrama, based on a story by playwright Donald Freed and Rush to Judgment author Mark Lane, is a fascinating document of a specific period in conspiracy thinking. It’s hard to give it anything but weak praise. When it comes to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Executive Action doesn’t waste any time in identifying who was responsible. Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer, and others star in the film’s first scene, which begins with a covert conference of conservative power players. Kennedy’s support for civil rights, his proposal to halt the Vietnam War, and other perceived inconveniences lead to a consensus that he must be removed from office. Rest of the film extensively details their scheme.
In the early ’70s, Executive Action sparked a lot of controversy, with many detractors believing that the project was ill-advised. However, the video is a perfect representation of how rapidly conspiracy theories attached themselves to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It also portrays how Kennedy’s death came to symbolize the beginning of the end for a generation of Americans. – The film’s villains are both despicable and comfortingly familiar to the audience. There is no doubt that these men who meet in secret to keep the status quo in place are the villains. It was only reinforced by the following deaths of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others – at least for those who perceived a hidden hand behind their deaths – that they were always the evil guys.
14. Conspiracy Theory (1997)
As strange as it may seem to imagine that a paranoid thriller was born out of an innocent era, think about it this way: Conspiracy Theory protagonist Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) uses a newsletter to propagate his outlandish notions about militias, the UN, the Vietnam War, and anything else that comes to mind to spread his message. As recently as 1997, conspiracy theorists were still working hard to disseminate their ideas and struggled to spread their message beyond a self-selected group of like-minded individuals. Consider the following: At this point, Gibson was known as a conspiracy theorist, but not for his violent, racist, nasty, and anti-Semitic views, which he developed a few years later (due to his insane beliefs about Rhodes Scholars being used as pawns of the New World Order). In the eyes of many, his eccentricity was a part of his appeal. Filmed by Richard Donner and starring Julia Roberts, it’s a fascinating time capsule of a time when conspiracy theories were still marginal enough to be hilarious, but it’s a modestly entertaining film.
13. Wag the Dog (1997)
This Barry Levinson film, directed by Hillary Henkin and David Mamet and written by the pair, was released the same year as Conspiracy Theory, and it, too, seems quaint in an age when the President of the United States routinely and shamelessly espouses lies, whether they are told out of ignorance, delusion, or some combination of the three. A presidential sex scandal requires a spin doctor like Robert De Niro’s Conrad Brean to distract the public’s attention. The eventual result of his efforts is a phony war, which he orchestrates with the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). A dark comedy that depends on the potential that the administration might face grave consequences if its lies were exposed has become associated with the title, but history has had the final laugh.
12. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
The Cold War setting of Richard Condon’s 1959 best-seller is updated in this second adaptation of the novel (you’ll find the first a bit further up the list). One of the most powerful equity firms in the world, Manchurian Global, has a strong interest in keeping the world unstable and ensuring conflict continues to exist. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s remake of Frankenheimer’s original is a difficult task, but the director puts the emphasis on characters and the personal costs suffered by the brainwashed Major Marco (Denzel Washington) and the damage done when the unscrupulous attempt to profit by undoing democracy from within is a success. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of a senator with nefarious intents, which many at the time felt was modeled on Hillary Clinton despite her assertions to the contrary, is particularly memorable.
11. Winter Kills (1979)
With Jeff Bridges as Nick Kegan, half-brother of a JFK-like president who begins to uncover the truth about the president’s murder 20 years later, this adaptation of a Condon novel is even more outlandish. The mafia, rival politicians, a Hollywood studio, and more all come into play as suspects in his investigation, leading him to the grimmest conclusion possible. To make a dark comedy about political paranoia, director William Richert turns to the JFK assassination. The cast includes John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, and an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor. Richert had to put in a lot of effort, too. In order to complete Winter Kills, the director and Bridges made another film after shady deals and a murdered producer stopped down production.) It was a flop when it came out, but now it plays like the bleak conclusion to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. Then there is…
10. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Watergate widened the fissures created by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which had already begun to appear in the American psyche. The 1970s and paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor made government operatives a mainstay of the film industry. Further, Sydney Pollack’s film creates an alternate reality where nothing is as it seems and everyone, even the most ordinary-looking stranger, could be a danger. After returning from a lunch break to find his entire New York office has been massacred, Robert Redford plays a low-level CIA analyst. He enlists the help of an unwitting woman (Faye Dunaway) since he feels he has no one else to turn to. They fall in love because it’s a Robert Redford movie, but they quickly realize that love is no match for the dangers they face, which seem to reach all the way up to the highest levels of government. American life seemed to have been broken and could never be repaired by the uncertain downbeat finish of the film.
9. Seven Days in May (1964)
After The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer made another film about a plot to overthrow the United States government. It’s a fascinating contrast between the two. “Seven Days in May,” a film written and directed by Rod Serling, has the potential to convey a disarmingly believable representation of an attempted military revolution to replace the president (Frederic March). Kirk Douglas plays a marine colonel who suspects the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Burt Lancaster), a hero of seemingly unimpeachable reputation, is plotting a coup d’état. A more stylised approach might have been less effective in conveying the film’s immediacy than the way Frankenheimer and Serling’s earlier live TV work is extended in this picture.
8. The Parallax View (1974)
Thanks to films like Klute and All the President’s Men, director Alan J. Pakula became synonymous with 1970s paranoid cinema. The latter brought a 1970s thriller style to a fact-based account of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s breaking of the Watergate story to the ’70s style. After watching The Parallax View, which is based on conspiracy theories and stars Warwick B. Beatty as Joe Frady, a reporter who begins to suspect witnesses to an assassination are being targeted one by one, you’ll be ready for the next two films in the series. Finding more and more information about the Parallax Corporation, Frady’s inquiry takes an unexpected turn, and he soon finds himself in over his head in ways he never expected. Even though Pakula’s film is best known for its frantic brainwashing sequence, it doesn’t lessen the authenticity of the era’s frightened mood. After a long line of films arguing that companies and governments, frequently working hand-in-glove, aren’t always looking out for our best interests, it’s nice to see this one add its voice to the clamor.
7. JFK (1991)
According to director Oliver Stone, JFK is a “counter-myth,” a story that may or may not be factual and is full of inconsistencies, that challenges the Warren Commission’s official account of the Kennedy assassination. JFK has arguably done more to advance wild speculation about Kennedy’s assassination than any of the assassination literature that came before it. The art of filmmaking, on the other hand, has that kind of impact. JFK is a masterful instance of how movies can transform reality, despite its dubious techniques and conclusions. Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, a New Orleans district attorney who begins to suspect that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the only assassin who took Kennedy’s life. For Stone, the bewilderment and panic that Kennedy’s death caused was depicted through the use of numerous film stocks and disorienting soundtracks, as well as harsh editing and unsettling pacing. It’s a poor attempt at truth-finding, because counter-myths don’t operate that way.
6. They Live (1988)
An allegory for the manner in which people are forced into maintaining a status quo that serves their own self-interests may be found in John Carpenter’s sci-fi masterpiece, Inception. Aliens could be using subliminal messages in entertainment and advertising to get humans to consume and conform to their way of life, what if they were genuinely human? Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a former wrestler turned actor, plays John Nada, an L.A. vagabond who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the deceit and see aliens in his midst. Films like “The Conspiracy Theory” show that there may be truth in even the most outrageous conspiracy theories. Even while Carpenter’s picture often plays the scenario for laughs, it nevertheless succeeds as an unambiguous call to rethink what is being passed off from the Reagan era fact.
5. Blow Out (1981)
Blow Out, a parody of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, features John Travolta as a sound technician working for a sleazy Philadelphia film producer, Jack Terry. A presidential hopeful’s tragic vehicle accident is witnessed and recorded by Jack, who suspects that it is an assassination. Blow Out, Brian De Palma’s thriller about the Kennedy assassination, the Chappaquiddick incident, and post-Watergate paranoia, is a potent mystery that suggests even a serial killer’s seemingly random acts of violence might be part of a larger plot, culminating in a climax that is almost nightmarish in its despair.
4. Secret Honor (1984)
Even Richard Nixon, or at least the Nixon played by Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s brilliant one-man-show movie, couldn’t escape the post-Watergate hysteria. Adapted from a play by Donald Freed (one of the architects of Executive Action) and Arnold M. Stone, Nixon’s monologue on his life, presidency, complaints, and people who betrayed him is the only thing in the film. Nixon is intoxicated and sweaty. It’s easy to forget that the last act rests on the disclosure of a conspiracy theory that makes the title startlingly accurate. Hall delivers one of the great performances. It doesn’t really matter if the film believes it or not. This shows that even the president of the United States is unable to stand up to some powerful forces..
3. All the President’s Men (1976)
Alan J. Pakula used the same techniques he used in Klute and The Parallax View to tell the narrative of Watergate and the Washington Post reporters who first brought it to light. Both fiction and reality benefitted from his use of them. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two journalists whose investigation into a mysterious break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices leads them to the President of the United States. That politicians would go to great lengths to obtain and retain power was not a surprise to many, but rather confirmation that they would do whatever it took to do so. I felt like I was reading from a scary, well-researched thriller when I saw the day’s headlines. Films on this list may claim to uncover hidden reality — but Pakula’s respects the facts and his creepy, unornamented approach reflects how much nightly news and scary visions he and other 1970s directors had started to merge together.
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s plot-against-America novel draws on everything from McCarthy-inspired demagoguery to far-out stories of American POWs being subjected to Chinese mind-control techniques during the Korean War to create a sense of political unmooring in which no one can be trusted and nothing taken at face value.. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is a former prisoner of war haunted by visions of seeing his fellow soldier Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) murder someone at the command of the communists who held him prisoner of war. His mother (Angela Lansbury), a fiercely anti-communist senator, has pushed Shaw into the political arena in the years after the publication of these films. Because of this, Marco is in a perfect position to use Shaw as a pawn in some evil scheme.
When it comes to making a film memorable, it’s not the tale itself, but how Sinatra portrays Marco’s sweaty agony as he tries to chat to a compassionate stranger (Janet Leigh) on the train that does the trick. When the film was released a year before the killing of John F. Kennedy, no one could have predicted that history would take an even more dramatic turn.
1. Z (1969)
While conspiracy theories may be legitimate, they may also be lurking in plain sight. Directed by Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras, the 1963 assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis at the hands of the same right-wing forces that would take over the country in 1967 is depicted in a film that deploys the thinnest of veils. The Lambrakis substitute, Yves Montand, is slain in public after delivering a lecture in favor of nuclear disarmament. The military hired assassins to eliminate a potential threat, and the police are using a tale of a drunk driving accident as a cover. Thus, the investigation is left to a committed magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a photojournalist (Jacques Perrin), and a small group of others. For JFK, Z is a key source of inspiration, depicting the assassination in a variety of ways, drawing from a wide range of sources to highlight how facts can be twisted and even buried away from public view. With a few moments of dark humor, Z also conveys an uneasy and frustrating feeling that some forces might be more powerful than justice and that the complete airing of the truth might not stop those in power from repeating a falsehood until the public is forced to accept it. So it’s both an iconic example of 1960s filmmaking in which the protest movement was the driving force and a foreshadowing of what’s to come.