Published January 20, 2009
You’re probably watching the inauguration right now. But what’s behind those innocent eyes, that confident voice, that immense popularity? With hope, change, and transcendence taking their places on the political stage today, some are already taking bets on when something will go terribly wrong. With that in mind I wanted to share some of my favorite Political Conspiracy films of all time:
Part military-coup exposé, part cinema-vérité reenactment, part Nouvelle Vague-tinged political drama, Z is greater than the sum of its fairly interesting parts. This is Costa Gavras’ definitive statement about repressive, power-hungry bureaucracy and his nostalgic memorial to the romantic failure of liberal do-gooders. In an unnamed country very much resembling Greece in the 1950s, a popular, intellectual, leftist candidate (Yves Montand playing Obama’s ideological doppelganger) is about to rectify his country’s wrongs. Only one thing stands in the way: the powers that control everything wrong. The ensuing assassination and the duel between investigation and cover-up is one of the great procedural-thriller experiences in cinema.
Two of the greats: Charles Denner, chased to the music of Mikis Theodorakis.
The Parallax View (1974)
One of Warren Beatty’s great roles, as Joe Frady, the scrappy sleazy journalist. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to uncover a might-have-been assassination attempt. While that vagueness is eliminated as the picture goes on, the forces behind it all only grow darker and more ominous. Many regard Klute or All the President’s Men as Alan J. Pakula’s great directorial moment, but as far as I’m concerned neither of those stories have the intricacy, nuance, and suspense offered by this winding journey with Warren Beatty, not to mention one of cinematographer’s Gordon Willis’ greatest explorations of space. Neither of those films feature this amazing montage:
Oliver Stone’s epic, ecstatic conspiracy theory. Disregarding the B-plot, which flatly canonizes Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the attorney investigating the case, the extended version of JFK is one of the briskest three-and-a-half-hour movies you will ever see. Stone is gung-ho for potentially watershed minutia. Taking cues from the 50s and 60s avant-garde, Stone mixes film stocks, uses near-single frame cuts and bombards the viewer with endless visual manipulations and sound. For editing and cinematography, JFK certainly qualifies as one of the best films of the last 25 years. It’s also one of the best movies for Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Speaking of John F. Kennedy, it would be wrong to forget one of his friend-turned-enemy’s greatest roles: Frank Sinatra as the unimportantly named lead in this tautest of Cold War thrillers. Exploring the psychological ramifications of physical and ideological warfare, this movie pulls its character development from desperation. Even the baddies’ evil smugness is just cheap desperation in the end. This wonderful dejection maintains the film’s freshness. It’s endearing in its fatalism—and prescient in its recognition of pending upheaval.
Now let’s have a great decade America. Keep the controversy on-screen.