The coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, while protests against police brutality and racism fill the streets, and former members of President Trump’s Cabinet are publicly criticizing him. Surreal images of police shootings and the president walking to a church to hold up a Bible are juxtaposed with the president’s odd walk to the church after the police used violence to clear his way of nonviolent demonstrators. Since the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War began to agitate people in the 1960s, public faith in the government has plummeted to a new low.
This mistrust has been expressed in film for a long time before. Since the 1960s, Hollywood has depicted the United States’ leadership and intelligence agencies as more sinister and dark. It’s not uncommon for critics to write off the best paranoid and conspiratorial thrillers and dramas of the last 50 years as mere “popcorn entertainment.” In spite of this, there is some truth in even the most absurd of these works. They had a great distrust of the government because of real scandals plaguing the United States or persistent suspicions of government participation in assassinations and foreign wars. To show how filmmakers’ boldness has risen and fallen over the years, here are some of the best films that have tried to convey that cautious atmosphere.
1. The Manchurian Candidate (1962, directed by John Frankenheimer) / (2004, directed by Jonathan Demme)
Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a square-jawed military hero, is brainwashed to become a Soviet sleeper spy in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 thriller. Shaw’s mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) seeks just raw power, thus the story’s boldness is its evident disdain for the stars-and-stripes pageantry of American politics. With Denzel Washington as the man charged with uncovering the fraud, Demme’s 2004 remake shifted the focus away from the Soviet Union and toward big business, which was once again responsible for facilitating Shaw’s ascent to power. Despite the passage of time, the central message—that Americans are readily mislead by the spectacle of military heroism—has not lost any of its forcefulness.
2. Seven Days In May (1964, directed by John Frankenheimer)
Immediately following The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer’s follow-up displays the same skepticism of the top levels of government. Rather, the plot features a military coup plotted by a charismatic general (Burt Lancaster) against a president (Fredric March) who is attempting to negotiate peace and nuclear disarmament with the Soviets, rather than the science-fiction component of brainwashing. It is Kirk Douglas who portrays the Pentagon staffer who stumbles into the conspiracy and spends a week trying to figure it out. Like his past governmental thrillers, Frankenheimer sought to make the point that America’s so-called unique liberties were constantly under risk during the Cold War.
3. Z (1969, directed by Costa-Gavras)
Z, filmed under special conditions and satirizing the military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, may be the greatest and most enduring political thriller ever made. However, because it was released during the height of the Vietnam War and shortly after a wave of anti-war protests in 1968, the regime shown in Costa-Gavras’ film resonated with people all around the world. Despite the police’s insistence that a left-wing politician (Yves Montand) was killed in a drunk-driving accident, Z follows an unnamed magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he investigates the killing with vigor. However, in the film’s spectacular last act, his achievement in proving murder is dismantled by the courts, a bleakly humorous but heartbreaking depiction of how a dictatorship’s rule of justice functions.
4. The Parallax View (1974, directed by Alan J. Pakula)
Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy,” which includes 1971’s Klute and 1976’s All the President’s Men, centres around a missing-persons case and the Watergate affair, respectively. Parallax View is most dramatic and exciting but is grounded in a fear that dominated American politics during the 1970s. First, the Space Needle is rocked by the assassination of an American presidential contender; a congressional investigation soon concludes it was an isolated incident, but journalist Warren Beatty finds the involvement of an unknown corporation called Parallax. However, Gordon Willis’ wide-angle photography, which gives the empty auditoriums and offices in which Beatty dashes around to elude capture as the unassuming agents of Parallax approach in on him, is the best aspect of Pakula’s film.
5. The Conversation (1974, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Francis Ford Coppola’s film depicts a secluded and chaotic society. With a triple-locking door and burglar alarm, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) conducts a surveillance company from his home in San Francisco, where he is protected from the dangers of the city. When he hears a couple talking about their dread of being murdered, he listens in. In an attempt to decipher the true meaning of what he’s heard, Harry is increasingly suspicious of the people who hired him. Coppola’s film, released the year Nixon resigned over the Watergate tapes, is a well honed picture of the dread over the insidious development of surveillance. The Godfather Part II might even be better than this picture by Francis Ford Coppola.
6. Three Days of the Condor (1975, directed by Sydney Pollack)
Between The Sting, The Way We Were, and All the President’s Men, Robert Redford was at the pinnacle of his fame when this film was released. In this fast-paced thriller, his all-American good looks are put to good use as a low-level CIA analyst who is forced to flee after his whole office is assassinated for reasons that remain a mystery. The CIA has recruited a nasty, skilled European assassin to kill Redford, and Max von Sydow is the right counterpoint to play the everyman entangled in a web of political schemes he hardly understands. Despite the fact that the plot is typical of Hollywood scripting, by 1975 it had become common practice to portray the US intelligence community as the enemy.
7. Marathon Man (1976, directed by John Schlesinger)
Many of the protagonists in 1970s conspiracy thrillers are ordinary folks who find themselves in unfamiliar situations. “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman), the protagonist of Marathon Man and a journalist and dissident, is an example of Hollywood’s shift away from the cowboys, soldiers, and cops of yore. Laurence Olivier (Laurence Olivier), a Holocaust survivor and Nazi war criminal, is being shielded by a secret government agency. In Schlesinger’s picture, Hoffman and Olivier are pitted against each other in a tense duel of performing styles. A sequence in which Levy is tormented in a dentist’s chair is remains famous because of the film’s unusually severe and honest tone.
8. Blow Out (1981, directed by Brian De Palma)
Blow Out, America’s other great thriller centered on sound design, is my personal favorite of Brian De Palma’s body of work and one of the darkest and most unnerving I’ve ever seen. Jack Terry, a sound technician for a movie, accidently records a political assassination while working on a film. To piece together the crime, Jack delves into the incriminating background sounds he picked up, discovering a plot to assassinate a presidential prospect. Throughout his career, De Palma has focused on obsession and voyeurism, using his camera as an active character and disturbing his audience with unparalleled degrees of voyeurism. Even though the picture was a box office failure at the time of its release in 1981, Blow Out has since become one of cinema’s most beloved works of fiction.
9. Nixon (1995, directed by Oliver Stone)
In the 1980s and 1990s, Stone became one of the nation’s foremost purveyors of disdain for the current system, with bombastic smashes like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK. Though he made a three-hour epic about Nixon’s life, the director’s cut extends it to three and a half hours, making it his best subject for his confrontational, violent style of filmmaking. He may not be a match for the president he represents physically, but Anthony Hopkins’ impersonation of the man behind closed doors is astounding. Although it is a documentary, Stone’s film feels more like an opera than a film about history. As a fair tribute to the gruff public demeanor of President Nixon, who relied on blackmail and coercion to maintain his position of power, this seems appropriate.
10. Absolute Power (1997, directed by Clint Eastwood)
The Vietnam War, the suppression of student uprisings, and the distrust of the intelligence community fueled disillusionment in the 1970s. Public morals and sexual misconduct were frequently discussed throughout the 1990s, particularly in relation to the Clinton White House. Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, and Laura Linney star in Eastwood’s absurd thriller, which has an all-star ensemble and a gruesome concept. It’s the president’s (Hackman) murder of a woman he’s having an affair with that Eastwood breaks into the mansion and witnesses. From there, things take an even more absurd turn, but Eastwood tells the story with his usual calm as he investigates a government that is decaying from the inside out.
11. Wag the Dog (1997, directed by Barry Levinson)
Wag the Dog, the only comedy on this list, is an eerily prescient satire of media manipulation that only becomes more believable as the years go by. A fictitious conflict with Albania is concocted with the help of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss, played by Robert De Niro, in order to divert attention away from a looming sexual misconduct scandal involving the president. The majority of the picture is a spoof of Conrad’s narcissistic political hackery and Stanley’s visual puffery. When things take an unexpected turn and become darker, the film shows just how far the government is willing to go to maintain its image.
12. The X-Files (1998, directed by Rob Bowman)
The X-Files, the brilliant 1990s television series that incorporated every popular conspiracy theory from the previous four decades into a captivating weekly drama, is a must-read for anybody interested in government thrillers. Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) of the FBI are investigating a wide range of crimes, including alien abductions, presidential killings, Nazi collaboration, and planet-wide surveillance. Adapted from the show’s serialized timeline, Bowman’s film is a great standalone thriller that gives Mulder and Scully’s exploits a blockbuster polish while maintaining the same distrust-no-one vibe as the series. It’s a great film.
13. Enemy of the State (1998, directed by Tony Scott)
Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman, is a fitting pairing because both actors are icons of the ’90s Hollywood film industry. Robert Clayton Dean (Smith) and Edward Lyle (Hackman) are a do-gooder lawyer and a government dissident, respectively, who find themselves in the crosshairs of a government assassination cover-up after a surveillance camera captures the assassination. Scott, on the other hand, transforms that story into an exhilarating action spectacle, complete with gunfights, lens flares, and the frenzied graphics that made him a filmmaker to remember. There is still a seed of distrust, but it has been transformed into something that can be seen on every screen in the country during its opening weekend.
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