You can read The New York Times and Washington Post every day and devour every report by Seymour Hersh, but that doesn't mean you feel like you really know what's going on in the world of politics. And forget about TV journalism. Sometimes the only way to fill in some of the blanks and get answers, or at least "what ifs," is to watch a good political thriller.
The best political thrillers seamlessly weave together political insight and compelling suspense, and offer the unsettling thrill of having our flimsy notions and beliefs debunked. As the hero/investigator peels back the layers of falsehood, we experience the one-eye-open joy of seeing veils drop. We get more than just the solution of a mystery and a new interpretation of history and current events - we get the dark gift of prophecy.
All the King's Men
Hollywood studios generally avoided making movies about battles for political power and the tactics of those battles until the 1960s. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and the 1949 version of All the King's Men were notable exceptions. RKO gave Welles nearly unlimited freedom to make any movie he wanted, and he and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz chose to critique the sources of power in the U.S., embodied in one politically ambitious man who possessed great economic wealth and control over much of the American media. After that, Welles was silenced - partly through his own doing - and so, too, was overt political discourse in Hollywood films through the next two decades.
Alfred Hitchcock, meanwhile, was busy inventing and refining the suspense film, and often used political struggles as backdrops. While political maneuverings in his movies were used to motivate his stories and put his neurotic heroes in jeopardy, Hitchcock nevertheless presented the realities of political tactics - assassination, empty talk used as a cover for self-interest, cloaking oneself in the language of peace while pursuing war - with sophistication. But what mattered most was entertaining audiences and dosing them with delicious anxiety.
In the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the child of a young English couple is kidnapped by a group of spies led by Peter Lorre, who is holding the child hostage because the father had heard the dying words of someone who knows the details of an assassination plot. The political intrigue serves as a device to force the child's parents to weigh their personal situation against the needs of their country. Foreign Correspondent (1940) introduced a staple of American political thrillers: the naïve, self-absorbed American caught in a web of political intrigue slowly perceiving layers of conspiracy and finding nothing is as it seems. Joel McRae plays Johnny Jones, a young crime-beat reporter in New York assigned to cover the storm clouds gathering over Europe on the eve of World War II. Rechristened "Huntley Haverstock," Jones witnesses an assassination and then learns of the abduction of a diplomat. He eventually uncovers a political conspiracy that links a member of the English upper class with the Nazis and tests the loyalty of the woman he loves.
In Notorious (1946), Hitchcock was still using Nazis as political villains, even if they are, in this case, hiding out in South America. Again, the international intrigue serves as a backdrop and catalyst for what is really on Hitchcock's mind - to show how far a fallen woman will go to redeem herself. Ingrid Bergman's Alicia Huberman goes so far as to sleep with an ex-Nazi to help an American agent (Cary Grant) gather intelligence.
Hitchcock returned to the use of international intrigue as a narrative backdrop in North by Northwest (1959), his ultimate tale of an oblivious man who becomes the prey of foreign interests attempting to steal military secrets from the U.S. North by Northwest's stylish mix of romance, mystery, action and political intrigue served as the cinematic blueprint for the James Bond films and, along with Hitchcock's previous thrillers about seemingly innocent heroes caught up in webs of intrigue, set the standard for the thrillers of the next few decades.
In 1959, a former Hollywood agent with a gift for smart research published a novel called The Manchurian Candidate. The author, Richard Condon, applied the fast pace and deft characterization found in movies by Hitchcock, Welles and Billy Wilder to a political story about McCarthyism and its uses by powerful interest groups. Condon had the ability to look past the headlines of the day and perceive the motives of politicians and the sophisticated ways they employ the media to limit the scope and depth of political discourse. He was not concerned primarily with the struggle between the Communist East and the West. What he wrote about in The Manchurian Candidate, and much later, in Winter Kills, was the struggle for power - political and economic - and its corrupting influence. Condon wrote about the psychology of power, how the lust for it can enable one to sacrifice one's own children in its pursuit.