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Political Thrillers, Continued
By Steve Goldstein
In Z (1969), Costa-Gavras applied Pontecorvo's documentary style to a story about a sloppy political assassination in an unnamed European country. The movie opens with the country's political and military leaders convening and planning the murder of Yves Montand's charismatic opposition leader, doling out the assignment to hired thugs. There's no mystery here, and even Montand's character, referred to only as "the deputy," seems to be expecting to be assassinated. The deputy is no angel himself; he's a Kennedyesque womanizer who has emotionally abandoned his wife. His intelligence, sense of justice and natural leadership abilities mark him as a target, however. After the deputy's ritualistic, inevitable murder, a relentless prosecutor played by Jean-Louis Trintignant puts the screws to the government, and provides a welcome dose of audience satisfaction, but it's not enough to temper Costa-Gavras' deep-rooted cynicism.
Hitchcock had waded back into political waters during this period, first with his miscast espionage thriller Torn Curtain, then with Topaz (1969), which is set in the days before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although he had long been based in Hollywood, Hitchcock's film is European in both tone and point of view. John Forsythe's CIA agent plays second banana to Frederick Stafford's French intelligence agent, who is asked by the CIA to use his contacts in Cuba to learn about the Russians' plans to move missiles onto the island. In Topaz, betrayal is the common thread through all relations - familial and political. The French intelligence agent, André Devereaux, betrays his wife with a Cuban aristocrat, who has betrayed the revolution, which has betrayed the Cuban people. Meanwhile, a Russian defector betrays the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and a high-ranking French official sells himself to the Soviets. The Americans don't come off clean either: they are shown to be crass and manipulative, particularly in the way they use American consumerism as a bargaining chip in the open market for intelligence.
Day of the Jackal
The jaded, European attitude toward political conspiracy can be found in Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal (1973), based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth. Political hard-liners hire an assassin, code-named the Jackal, to kill French leader Charles de Gaulle, and the police doggedly track the suave, chameleonic professional hit man. The conspirators themselves seem hardly the dangerous sort; they're bitter, aging men who can barely scrape together the cash to pay the Jackal. As in De Palma's Blow Out, The Day of the Jackal's cat-and-mouse plot upstages the politics.
It took awhile, but the internationalist point of view eventually popped up in a few films financed by American production companies, notably Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire (1983) and Oliver Stone's Salvador (1986). In Under Fire, a photojournalist (Nick Nolte) chooses to get involved in the Nicaraguan civil war after witnessing horrors that he believes have been, at the very least, tacitly approved by U.S. intelligence. He eventually learns that horrors are committed by all sides in political conflicts, a conclusion arrived at pretty late considering he's supposed to be a veteran of several wars and revolutions.
In Salvador, Richard Boyle, the real-life photojournalist played memorably by James Woods, has no such illusions to lose, although even in his drug- and alcohol-fueled state he has plenty of moral outrage to burn. A mess of movie, Salvador nevertheless has the courage of its convictions and dares to completely alienate the viewer with its unlikable characters and poetic representation of war-torn El Salvador as a morally confused state of mind.
Missing (1982), Costa-Gavras' first Hollywood production, also critiques covert American involvement in foreign politics. Based on a true story, Missing differs from other political thrillers in that the central investigating character is not a journalist, intelligence agent or soldier - he's an ordinary, politically conservative middle-aged American (Jack Lemmon) whose personal grief forces him to see his own government and its methods in a new light.
The domestically set thriller in which basic U.S. political institutions are cast in doubt was pretty much in eclipse by this point, excluding perhaps Sam Peckinpah's odd, low-budget thriller The Osterman Weekend (1983), which, like most of Peckinpah's films, is mainly concerned with the limits of male loyalty and the lengths to which a man will go to protect his homestead. An overreaching CIA is a secondary concern, used primarily as a plot device.
No Way Out (1987) is built on a foundation of some of the basic elements of political thrillers: a corrupt, ambitious high-ranking U.S. official; an intrepid but naïve seeker of truth; a mysterious woman who may be either an ally or a lure. A blueprint for the next wave of political thrillers, No Way Out is essentially a star vehicle for Kevin Costner, whose career was then on the rise. Political institutions are not broken or corrupt in No Way Out, and there are no far-reaching conspiracies; it's just one bad apple (and maybe one henchman) that's souring the government. You've basically got a good guy and a bad guy, and very little moral incertitude.
Conspiracy Theory (1997) entertainingly tosses together many of the theories about the assassinations of the previous decades, but it can't seem to decide if it takes itself or its main character - a cab driver who spouts conspiracy theories with the speed of a frenzied Quentin Tarantino - seriously. In some scenes it's a straight-ahead thriller, in others director Richard Donner seems to be saying to the audience (and to his agent), "I don't believe any of this conspiracy hokum - this movie is really a love story about a damaged man redeemed by a strong woman. I wish to remain an employable Hollywood director so I prefer to hedge my bets." A star vehicle for Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts that hinges on the defeat of yet another lone bad apple in the U.S. government, Conspiracy Theory, through its twitchy performance by Gibson, connects the genre with its roots in Condon's fiction.
Like Conspiracy Theory, Enemy of the State (1998; extended cut) self-consciously comments on the paranoid thrillers of the '60s and '70s - The Conversation in particular. In fact, Gene Hackman plays a rogue surveillance expert whose workspace looks exactly like Harry Caul's warehouse space, and whose picture of his younger self is actually taken from the Coppola movie. This time the star vehicle belongs to Will Smith, who plays a young, wealthy lawyer who accidentally comes into possession of evidence that proves a U.S. congressman has been murdered. An ambitious National Security Agency official played by Jon Voight then unleashes advanced surveillance technology on Smith's character, freezing his assets, listening in on all his conversations and wrecking his professional reputation. The film would seem to have direct relevance to current concerns about the near total loss of privacy in the U.S., but the Jerry Bruckheimer production is more interested - through its cutting, graphics and the pointless inclusion of techo-geeks played by Jack Black and Seth Green - in appealing to video game
enthusiasts. If this deliberately confused mishmash of a movie has anything to say at all about government surveillance, it's that the technology is fun to play with; just make sure Harry Caul is on your side if it's turned against you.
The Interpreter (2005) looks like a political thriller with its nighttime scenes at the U.N. and backdrop of civil war in Africa, but it provides few thrills and offers up muddled politics and no point of view whatsoever on the effectiveness of the United Nations itself. Director Sydney Pollack tries to re-create the tension and intrigue of Three Days of the Condor, but African politics don't seem to be his specialty. His stars in the earlier movie had a real script to work with, whereas, in the later film, Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman don't connect with their characters, with each other or with their director.
More noble recent attempts at resuscitating the genre include the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate and Stephen Gaghan's Syriana (2005). Sadly, neither film offers thrills or mind-altering revelations.
Directed by Jonathan Demme, the remake of Manchurian makes its bid for relevance by setting the opening scenes in the 1992 Gulf War instead of the Korean War. The collusion between Russian and Chinese Communists and the political far right in the U.S. is replaced in Demme's version by a sinister multinational corporation that has created its own political candidate to further its global financial aims. Making a political statement is not the same thing as making a movie, and the dependable cast can't breathe life into a script that strains to overcome its artificiality.
Syriana, another movie with a political conscience and shallowly written characters, has a strong statement to make about petropolitics, but tends to play it safe by burying that statement in an overly tangled plot.
Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) and David Mamet's Spartan (2004) managed to transcend the committee-made muck of their eras. In both cases, strong, independent directors drew on the ground-shifting quality of the best political thrillers and took bold steps in new directions.
In JFK, Stone used the common device of an upstanding but naïve central character tearing away the veils of deceit, but in this case that character, an idealized version of real-life New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), is well-educated, quick-witted, imaginative, fearless and driven. The cinematography, the cutting, the sound, the leaps back and forth in time, the interplay of documented events and hypothesized situations, the fading in and out of a parade of colorful secondary characters and the energy of the filmmaking itself express the inner workings and revelatory states of Garrison's mind. Stone took a page from Jean-Luc Godard, who shot and cut Breathless to match the personality of Jean-Paul Belmondo's impulsive small-time hood.
JFK is not truth - it's an open-ended filmmaking experiment. Stone succeeds in changing the shape of history itself by running all available evidence related to the president's murder through the mind of a brilliant, incorruptible detective. In the film, Garrison says, "White is black and black is white." Like the Flitcraft character in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Garrison has taken the lid off reality to see the works inside. And that's what Stone attempted to do through the style of his movie. Film critics, political commentators and media pundits at the time of the release of JFK made good money tearing apart the film - solid evidence that Stone was on to something.
The modestly budgeted Spartan is cut along the lines of a traditional thriller, too. Val Kilmer's military intelligence operative investigates the disappearance of the president's college-age daughter. It's not clear who Kilmer works for - it's not the regular army, and it's not the CIA. But he's clearly the government's top man when it comes to secret, lone-wolf operations. Mamet's crisp dialogue, distanced direction and tough-minded obsession with personal responsibility work surprisingly well in the context of the political thriller. He loads the film with cool action, yet his disgust with a political system ruled by mendacious self-interest is palpable. Ever the card sharp, Mamet delights in using sleight of hand to misdirect the audience. The viewer is fooled, Kilmer's character is fooled, voters are fooled. Nothing is as it seems.
For a lighter touch
The self-seriousness of political thrillers can often weigh them down and leave one longing for the tartness of satire. The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Woody Allen's Bananas and Sleeper all observe that the people running governments are about as wise, honest and emotionally balanced as the people you know and work with - a sobering thought. Wrong Is Right, a low-budget satirical gem directed by Richard Brooks, surfaced briefly in 1982 and disappeared, but it stuns now with a power of prophecy that rivals The Manchurian Candidate.
On the surface an international political thriller set in the not-too-distant future, Wrong Is Right is played solely for nervous laughs. The plot must have seemed far-fetched in the year of its release, as television journalist Patrick Hale, played by Sean Connery, tries to make sense of the assassination of the leader of an oil-producing Gulf state, the assumption of power by a militant Islamic group, the involvement of the CIA and the political maneuverings of the U.S. president. Hale knows that he's the linchpin; the only political events that exist are the ones he chooses to cover. Today the movie looks like a cynical, hopeless take on the close ties between the federal government and the news media. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and the unnerving closing scene in Lower Manhattan doesn't make it any easier.
Steve Goldstein is a magazine editor and freelance writer. He lives in New York City.