Political conspiracies – so hot these days. It’s impossible to turn on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN or take a glimpse at any other news outlet without smelling the whiff of paranoia and envisioning vast, shadowy networks of back-room operatives making shady deals. Fun to think about, isn’t it?
Sometimes it helps to view fictional representations of what’s going on in the real world. Think of it as a parallel coping mechanism. So, if your head’s ready to explode at the news these days, turn it off and throw on one of these eight films for a change. (P.S. – look out for this hot-button political film coming from Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, in a year or so).
The Parallax View (1974) – Director Alan Pakula made two of the quintessential political thrillers of the 1970s; his first, from 1974, stars Warren Beatty (a star certainly not unfamiliar with politics) as a newspaper reporter ensnared in the machinations of an evil corporation that turns out assassins.
All the President’s Men (1976) – Another Pakula film, this one is based on the real-life story of the two intrepid Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) who broke the Watergate story. There’s a good argument for this being the best political movie ever made, period; it’s full of iconic scenes (try to visit the Library of Congress without thinking of this film) and sterling performances, particularly from Jason Robards as the venerable Ben Bradlee.
Capricorn One (1977) – A perfect movie for anyone who thinks that we didn’t actually go to the moon. In this case, it’s the nation’s first manned trip to Mars that’s faked for the public; when the bewildered astronauts discover that their lives are in danger from the government, they embark on a desperate race for survival. It’s a fine little thriller boosted by the absolute epitome of 1970s casting – James Brolin, Sam Waterston, Elliot Gould, Hal Holbrook, Telly Savalas, Karen Black and, uh, O.J. Simpson.
The Ides of March (2011) – George Clooney’s adaptation of the Beau Willimon play never really reaches lofty Oscar-worthy status, but there’s a lot of excellence to be found here in the story of a Democratic presidential candidate (Clooney) and his ambitious campaign manager (Ryan Gosling) who gets pulled into a conspiracy. There’s a big, deep, brilliant cast here that elevates the story, with Paul Giamatti and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman acing their roles as dueling political operatives.
Seven Days in May (1964) – Rod Sterling penned the screenplay for this John Frankenheimer film that stars Kirk Douglas as a Marine colonel who discovers that a group of American soldiers are planning a military coup against the president. It’s a fine, taut thriller with another deep cast – a hallmark of these movies – that features Ava Gardner, Frederic March, Martin Basalm and the great Burt Lancaster as the leader of the coup.
Three Days of the Condor (1975) – Often cited as the perfect example of the 1970s thriller, this is the third of the extremely successful collaborations between director Sydney Pollack and star Robert Redford. Redford delivers one of his signature roles as a meek CIA agent thrown into a web of intrigue and murder, with Faye Dunaway as his unwitting help and Max Von Sydow as an assassin.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Certainly the film with the biggest box office on this list, the second installment in the Captain America series does something extraordinary with its star-spangled hero, turning him into a crusader against the unchecked power of a corrupted government agency. That agency is headed by a scheming leader played by Robert Redford – a clear reference to his Condor role. This is one of the more intelligent of the modern Marvel movies, harkening back to the political thrillers of the 1970s while delivering enough blockbuster thrills to satisfy its popcorn audience.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Probably the most famous of all the political conspiracy films and certainly the one most referenced in modern politics. The tale of brainwashed soldier-turned-politician Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and his suspicious former platoon mate Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) has been referenced and analyzed so many times it’s easy to forget how effective and chilling the film is. An added bonus for anyone who may only be familiar with Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher / Cabot Cove work will be her terrifying, Academy Award-nominated performance as Shaw’s evil mother.