The Atlantic

America continues to battle the coronavirus, demonstrators fill the streets to decry police brutality and racism, and former members of President Donald Trump’s own Cabinet are denouncing his leadership. There’s undeniable surrealism to the moment at hand, with police killings captured on camera running parallel to the bizarre image of the president strolling to a church to hold up a Bible, after the police used violent force to clear his path of peaceful protesters. Polling shows public trust in government has collapsed to historic lows, a decline that began in the 1960s with the agitation around the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War.

That distrust has long been reflected in cinema. Hollywood, especially beginning in the ’60s, has depicted United States leadership and its intelligence apparatus as shadowy and villainous with greater daring over the decades. Some of the best paranoid thrillers and conspiratorial dramas of the past 50 years were initially dismissed as fantastical genre pieces by critics, seen as little more than popcorn entertainment. But even the most outlandish of these works have a grain of truth to them. Their deep suspicion of the apparatus of power stemmed from real scandals engulfing the U.S., or from rumors of government involvement in assassinations and overseas wars that could never be fully dismissed. What follows are some of the best cinematic efforts that capture that wary mood over the years, arranged chronologically to chart how filmmakers’ brashness waxed and waned over the decades.


The Manchurian Candidate, 2004 (Paramount Pictures)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962, directed by John Frankenheimer) / (2004, directed by Jonathan Demme)

John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film is a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia, where the square-jawed military hero Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) is brainwashed to become a Soviet sleeper agent. The boldness of the story is its clear disdain for the stars-and-stripes pageantry of American politics, easily manipulated to serve the interests of Shaw’s mother, Eleanor (Angela Lansbury), who craves only raw power. Demme’s fascinating 2004 update, which starred Denzel Washington as the man unraveling the scandal, pivoted from Soviets to big business, with a multinational corporation this time engineering Shaw’s rise to power. The core message—that Americans are easily misled by the spectacle of military heroism—remained as trenchant more than 40 years on.

How to watch: HBO


Seven Days In May (1964, directed by John Frankenheimer)

Frankenheimer’s immediate follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate has the same deep distrust in the highest levels of government. But it lacks the science-fiction angle of brainwashing—instead, the conspiracy involves a military coup being planned by a charismatic general (Burt Lancaster) against a president (Fredric March) attempting to negotiate peace and nuclear disarmament with the Soviets. Kirk Douglas plays the Pentagon staffer who discovers the plot and tries to unravel it over the course of a frenzied week; as with his other governmental thrillers, Frankenheimer wanted to drive home the message that America’s supposedly exceptional freedoms were balanced on a knife’s edge throughout the Cold War.

Watch it on: Rentable


Z (1969, directed by Costa-Gavras)

Possibly the greatest and most enduring political thriller ever made, Z was produced under specific circumstances and satirized the military junta that governed Greece from 1967 to 1974. But the government depicted in Costa-Gavras’s film resonated with viewers around the world, given that the film came out at the height of the Vietnam War and just after the wave of protests in 1968. Z follows an unnamed magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) doggedly investigating the assassination of a left-wing politician (Yves Montand), despite the police’s insistence that he died in a drunk-driving accident. He succeeds in proving murder, but that success is disassembled by the courts in the film’s incredible final act, a bleakly funny but tragic illustration of how the rule of law functions under a dictatorship.

Watch it on: Criterion Channel


The Parallax View (1974, directed by Alan J. Pakula)

This film is the second in Alan J. Pakula’s informal “paranoia trilogy,” along with 1971’s Klute, which revolves around a missing-persons case, and 1976’s All the President’s Men, a dramatization of the Watergate scandal. The Parallax View is the most outrageous and thrilling of the three, but it’s rooted in the same sense of fear that dominated American politics in the ’70s. It begins with the dramatic assassination of a presidential candidate atop Seattle’s Space Needle; a congressional commission quickly rules that the assassin acted alone, but a journalist (Warren Beatty) uncovers the involvement of a mysterious corporation called Parallax. Things quickly get terrifying, but the best part of Pakula’s film is the wide-angled photography from Gordon Willis that lends tremendous menace to the empty auditoriums and offices that Beatty darts around in, trying to evade capture as the nondescript agents of Parallax close in on him.

Watch it on: Showtime


The Conversation (1974, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

The world of Francis Ford Coppola’s film is cloistered and unkempt. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) runs a surveillance company in San Francisco from his barricaded home, safe behind a triple-locked door and burglar alarm. Then he bugs a conversation in which a couple discusses their fear of being murdered. Suspicious of the clients who hired him, Harry descends into deeper mistrust and obsession, trying to decipher the true meaning of what he’s heard. Coppola’s film is such a perfectly honed portrayal of panic over the creeping growth of surveillance, released the year Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate tapes. It might even be better than the other film Coppola made in 1974: The Godfather Part II.

Watch it on: Rentable and Kanopy


Three Days of the Condor (1975, directed by Sydney Pollack)

Robert Redford was at the absolute height of his stardom when this film came out, between movies such as The Sting, The Way We Were, and All the President’s Men. His all-American good looks are deployed flawlessly in this rip-roaring thriller, which casts him as a low-level CIA analyst who goes on the run after his entire office is gunned down for reasons unknown. Redford’s the perfect everyman, caught in a snare of government conspiracies he barely comprehends; Max von Sydow is an ideal counterpart as the grim, professional European assassin hired by the CIA to eliminate him. Though the plot itself is typically ludicrous Hollywood screenwriting, by 1975, casting America’s intelligence apparatus as the enemy had become the stuff of mainstream studio entertainment.

Watch it on: Rentable


Marathon Man (1976, directed by John Schlesinger)

So many heroes of the 1970s conspiracy thriller are ordinary men thrust into worlds they don’t understand. Rather than the cowboys, soldiers, and cops of yesteryear, Hollywood turned to journalists, dissidents, and academics such as “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman), the hero of Marathon Man. A Ph.D. student in history, he becomes ensnared in the case of a Nazi war criminal (Laurence Olivier) living in hiding and protected by a secret government agency. Schlesinger’s film is a taut battle of performance styles, pitting New Hollywood icon Hoffman against the old-fashioned theatrical legend Olivier. But it’s also an exceptionally frank and brutal work, still notorious for a scene where Levy is tortured in a dentist’s chair.

Watch it on: Rentable


Filmways
Blow Out (1981, directed by Brian De Palma)

America’s other great thriller revolving around sound work, Blow Out is an even grimmer and more unsettling piece of paranoiac storytelling, my personal favorite of De Palma’s filmography. It stars John Travolta as Jack Terry, a movie-sound-effects technician who accidentally records a political assassination in the course of doing his job. As Jack examines the incriminating background noise he picked up, he discovers a plot to eliminate a presidential hopeful, and painstakingly goes through each layer of audio to put the pieces of the crime together. De Palma’s chief interests as a filmmaker have always been obsession and surveillance; he uses his camera as an active character and tries to disturb his audience with unprecedented levels of voyeurism. Blow Out is the perfect storytelling match for that style, and it builds to a desolate climax that made the film a box-office bomb in 1981, but a lasting critical favorite.

Watch it on: Pluto TV


Nixon (1995, directed by Oliver Stone)

Stone became America’s foremost purveyor of government mistrust in the 1980s and ’90s, producing bombastic hits such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK, all of which seethed with derision at the status quo. But probably the best subject for his aggressive and confrontational style of filmmaking was Richard Nixon, whose life he dramatized in this three-hour epic (the director’s cut pushes it to three and a half). Anthony Hopkins is no physical match for the president he portrays, but his imitation is nonetheless extraordinary, delving into the suspicion that defined the man behind closed doors. Stone’s film, like others in his oeuvre, plays fast and loose with history, feeling more like an opera than a documentary. But that seems fitting for Nixon, a president whose gruff public persona belied a backstage reliance on skulduggery and intimidation to stay in power.

Watch it on: Rentable


Absolute Power (1997, directed by Clint Eastwood)

Disillusionment in the 1970s revolved around the Vietnam War, suppression of student protests, and suspicion of the intelligence community. But in the ’90s, it often centered on public morals and sex scandals, especially those connected to the Clinton White House. Eastwood’s ludicrous thriller has an all-star cast (Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Laura Linney) and a lurid premise: A master thief (Eastwood) breaks into a mansion and accidentally witnesses the president (Hackman) murdering a woman he’s having an affair with. Things spiral into even more preposterous directions from there, but it’s all told with Eastwood’s typical soberness as he digs into a government that’s rotting from the inside.

Watch it on: Rentable


Wag the Dog (1997, directed by Barry Levinson)

Perhaps the only out-and-out comedy on this list, Wag the Dog is an eerily prescient satire of media manipulation that feels only more plausible as the years pass. Hired to distract the media from an oncoming sex scandal involving the president, spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) hires Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to concoct a phony war with Albania, flooding the television airwaves with fake footage to stir up patriotic fervor. Most of the film is played for laughs, poking at the egotistical similarities between Conrad’s political hackery and Stanley’s visual puffery. But the film takes a dark turn in its final act and survives the tonal shift, illustrating just how far the government will go to protect its own image.

Watch it on: Rentable


The X-Files (1998, directed by Rob Bowman)

No discussion of governmental thrillers is complete without mention of The X-Files, the masterful ’90s television series that mixed up every prominent conspiracy theory of the previous four decades and turned it into a compelling weekly drama. Alien abductions, presidential assassinations, Nazi collaboration, planet-wide surveillance—it’s all present, and all being investigated by the dogged FBI Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), though they’re usually thwarted by shadowy figures at the highest levels of power. Bowman’s film version fits into the show’s serialized chronology, but it’s also a terrific standalone thriller, giving Mulder and Scully’s adventures a blockbuster sheen that’s still suffused with the same trust-no-one atmosphere of the series.

Watch it on: Rentable


Enemy of the State (1998, directed by Tony Scott)

It’s fitting that Enemy of the State pairs Will Smith, one of the definitive stars of ’90s Hollywood, with Gene Hackman, who had headlined multiple conspiracy thrillers of decades past. The movie has a familiar plotline—a government assassination of a political candidate is captured by surveillance, leading to a murderous cover-up that puts do-gooder lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Smith) in the crosshairs, with government dissident Edward Lyle (Hackman) working to help him. But Scott renders that tale into an ear-splitting action extravaganza, filled with gun battles, lens flares, and the hyperactive visuals that defined him as a director. The essential seed of mistrust is still there, but it’s translated into something that can play on every screen in the country for a huge opening weekend.

Watch it on: Rentable

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