According to Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the United States has a history of “heated exaggeration, suspicion, and conspiratorial fantasy” (though not exclusively in American history). In 1964, Hofstadter connected the dots between the Illuminati and Freemasonry panic, anti-Catholic conspiracy theories, and McCarthy era anti-communist hysteria. While Hofstadter’s theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy began to surface shortly after his death in November 1963 and have continued to this day, internet-fueled conspiracy theories like those promoted by QAnon in the 2020 presidential election would have been no problem for him today.
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Conspiracy theories have a tangled relationship with the film industry.. Documentaries have been used to promote everything from 9/11 conspiracy theories to COVID-19 disinformation to alleged UFO cover-ups to whatever nonsense Dinesh D’Souza is trying to promote on any given day. It’s easy to fall into the trap of sensationalism by peddling unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, but that’s exactly what makes them so compelling to writers. Imagining that our world is riddled with dark forces and sinister plots can be euphoric. (In addition, the concentration of this list is on political conspiracy films.) 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.)
Metaphorically speaking, even if something isn’t true in the literal sense, it can nevertheless be true. “Style has more to do with the way ideas are believed than their content is true or false,” says Hofstadter once more. Conspiracy movies, when made well, may tap into a more primal fear and mistrust in the viewer. 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. What we don’t know may never be known. We can, however, examine the issue by seeing some interesting films that were inspired by the darkest corners of political debate.
10. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
It was Watergate that turned the small holes in the foundation of American life into large fissures. Paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and other 1970s films made use of clandestine government operatives before they became commonplace. Furthermore, Sydney Pollack goes even further by inventing a universe where nothing is as it appears and every seemingly innocuous stranger walking down the street could be a danger. The film stars Robert Redford as a low-level CIA analyst who returns from a lunch break to discover that his entire New York office has been massacred. Faye Dunaway plays the role of a lady he coerces into protecting him since he believes he can’t trust anybody else. As one might expect in a Robert Redford picture, they fall in love. However, they quickly discover that love is no match for the dangers they face, which seem to extend to the highest echelons 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)
Following The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer wrote a narrative about a coup d’état in the United States. It’s a fascinating contrast between the two. Seven Days in May, a film written by Rod Serling and starring a cast of understated actors, depicts a military attempt to overthrow the government in a very realistic manner (Frederic March). Marine colonel Kirk Douglas stars as a marine officer who suspects that Burt Lancaster, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is planning 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)
As a result of films like Klute and All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula became identified with 1970s paranoid filmmaking, combining the tone of a 1970s thriller to an accurate representation of the Watergate tale. That picture is sandwiched by The Parallax View, which is about a reporter who suspects that witnesses to a presidential candidate’s assassination are being killed off one by one. However, Frady immediately finds himself in over his head, in ways he couldn’t have predicted, when he investigates the Parallax Corporation. 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, this one added its voice to the growing chorus of films making the same argument.
7. JFK (1991)
“counter-myth”: Director Oliver Stone has always spoken about JFK as a “alternative story” that challenges the official Warren Commission version about JFK’s assassination and is packed with contradictions either way. With this video, you’re playing with fire, and the JFK assassination literature that came before it has perhaps done more to fuel wild speculation about the Kennedy assassination than any other. But that’s what filmmaking can do. Films can transform reality, no matter how problematic their techniques and conclusions may be. JFK is nothing if not a manifestation of this. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is a New Orleans DA who investigates a trail of evidence that suggests Lee Harvey Oswald was not the single assassin of President John F. Kennedy. For Stone, the bewilderment and dread that Kennedy’s death caused was depicted through the use of numerous film stocks and disorienting editing, as well as an unsettling music. As a real endeavor to seek the truth, it’s lacking, but that’s not how counter-myths work.
6. They Live (1988)
An allegory for the manner in which ordinary people find themselves serving the interests of the wealthy and powerful is presented in John Carpenter’s science-fiction classic, The Thing. Aliens could be using subliminal messages in entertainment and advertising to influence us to consume and conform. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as John Nada, an L.A. vagabond who discovers a set of sunglasses that allow him to see through the deceit and discover aliens in his midst. Some conspiracy theories, the video indicates, may have some truth to them, even if they are hidden behind aesthetically beautiful shapes. Despite the fact that Carpenter’s picture plays the situation for laughs, it nevertheless serves as an unambiguous call to rethink what is being passed off as the reality from the Reagan period.
5. Blow Out (1981)
Taking inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, Blow Out stars John Travolta as a sound technician working for a gritty Philadelphia film producer. A presidential hopeful’s tragic vehicle accident is witnessed and recorded by Jack, who suspects that it is an assassination. Assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Chappaquiddick incident, and post-Watergate paranoia all feature in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, which 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 an almost nightmarish climax.
4. Secret Honor (1984)
Even Richard Nixon couldn’t escape the post-Watergate paranoia, or at least the Nixon played by Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s brilliant one-man-show movie. With little more than Nixon’s rambling monologue on his life, presidency, and those who betrayed him, this film is nothing more than an adaptation of a play by Donald Freed (one of the architects of Executive Action), together with Arnold M. Stone. One of the most memorable performances of the year comes from Hall, who makes it easy to forget that the last act is predicated on the discovery of a conspiracy theory that takes the film’s title to its literal conclusion. It doesn’t really matter if the film believes it or not. According to Secret Honor, there may be forces so strong that even the president of the United States can’t stand up to them.
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. Using them in both fiction and actuality, they were equally effective. It’s the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two reporters who investigate a bizarre break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices and wind up in the White House, where they meet the President of the United States, Donald Trump. For many, Watergate was not a shock but rather a proof that politicians would do anything they could to acquire and maintain power, regardless of what values and democratic processes they trampled along the way. The news of the day read like a well-researched, scary suspense novel. In contrast to other films on this list, Pakula’s film is based on verifiable facts, and his creepy, unadorned manner shows how much the nightly news and the disturbing visions he and other ’70s directors had helped create had started to mix together.
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
An unhinged political nightmare in which no one can be trusted and nothing can be taken at face value, John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s plot against America was released at the height of the Cold War. It 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. Sinatra plays Bennett Marco, a former POW who is haunted by memories of seeing fellow soldier Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) commit murder at the command of their communist captors. Shaw’s mother (Angela Lansbury), who married a passionate anti-communist senator, has forced him into a political career in the years after their release. As a result, Marco is in a prime position to use Shaw as a pawn in any evil schemes he might uncover and thwart.
The terror and exhaustion that permeate the film, whether in the film’s dreamy images of brainwashing or Sinatra’s portrayal of Marco’s sweaty agony as he tries to keep it together while talking to a compassionate stranger (Janet Leigh) on a train, are what make it so memorable. 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 giving 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. In the end, there is only one magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and one photojournalist (Jacques Perrin) who can do anything about it. For JFK, Z presents the assassination from a variety of viewpoints with varying degrees of authenticity, drawing on many narratives to illustrate how facts are sometimes suppressed and then later changed or twisted. While Z has moments of dark humor, it also creates a persistent feeling of unease and frustration, suggesting that some forces might be more powerful than justice and that even the full disclosure of the truth might not stop those in power from repeating a lie until the public is forced to accept it. As a result, it’s a seminal work of protest cinema from the 1960s as well as a foreshadowing of what was to come, and it still rings true today.