With the Democratic Convention getting started today, the race for the American presidency is heating up. Cinema has been used effectively as a tool in politics for both good and bad. The growing distrust of government and civil unrest in the US and Europe in the 1960s and 70s gave birth to the political thriller, where truth and fiction mixed in a dark and convoluted soup of conspiracy, sex (most of the time) and power. Since then, the political thriller has become a staple for filmmakers looking to expose the hidden truths of our socio-political systems. Whether taut fiction or gripping true-life account, a good political thriller is layered, cryptic, subtle and can be counted on to expose the dark inner side of our most sacred institutions.
So in these most political of times, DMG Entertainment has compiled a dossier of the best political thrillers for your post-convention viewing. Beware that you don’t get caught up in the conspiracy…
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
Based on the book and articles by the real-life Woodward and Bernstein, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN gives the stranger than fiction account of how the two Washington Post reporters broke the biggest political scandal in American history that brought down a president.
MARATHON MAN (1976)
A head on collision between a car and an oil truck in New York spells trouble for Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy, history graduate student and marathon runner, as he is about to be drawn into the battle of his life. The man who dies in the collision is the brother of Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), the White Angel of Auschwitz. In exchange for diamonds, he let certain Jews go free during the Holocaust. After the crash, members of a US defense organization known as “The Division” end up dead. Babe’s brother is part of this division and he has to rely on his smarts and marathon running skills to survive the ordeal, which includes one of the most gruesomely suspenseful scenes ever put on film…it is not safe.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
John Frankenheimer’s original is one of the most influential movies of the decade. After returning back to the United States after the Korean War, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) wins the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of his fellow soldiers in combat. Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and the rest of his platoon have nothing but good things to say about Sergeant Shaw. But all is not what it seems as Marco and others suffer from post-traumatic nightmares that hint to a sinister truth.
IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993)
Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is a secret service agent who lost a president on his watch (Kennedy Assassination). Flash forward several years later and former CIA agent Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) is plotting to kill the president who is running for reelection. He spends time needling Horrigan with his plan to kill the president as he feels he has been the victim of a wrong doing by the government.
A merger between two American oil companies is threatened when an Emirate prince and heir to the throne, gives the contract to a Chinese firm instead. The plot is rich and well developed as it follows four parallel stories at once. Not only does this film examine the intricacies of politics in foreign matters, it is a scorching look at corruption in the oil industry. Timothy Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton) reveals a blistering truth about what makes the world go around when he tells a colleague how the whole idea behind putting rules and regulations around the industry is so they can exist for show.
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)
Themes of distrust and paranoia abound in this fast paced thriller directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford (Turner aka “Condor”). Turner works for the American Literary Historical Society. In reality, it’s a front for the CIA where they read foreign books and documents that might contain secret messages and codes. All seems easy and pleasant until Turner comes back from lunch to find all of his colleagues murdered. He calls the CIA to bring him in only to survive a murder attempt. Every decision Turner makes from here on out needs to be a calculated one as the wrong decision could cost him his life.
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1973)
It’s 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle has given Algeria its independence angering some remaining and former members of the French Foreign Legion, who have gone on to form an underground group referred to as OAS. They make failed attempts on de Gaulle’s life and subsequently, his security becomes impenetrable. In a last ditch effort to assassinate the president; they hire the world’s stealthiest assassin, The Jackal.
BLOW OUT (1981)
John Travolta (Jack) and Nancy Allen (Sally) star in this gritty thriller from director Brian De Palma. Jack is on the search for a scream queen for a horror movie he’s shooting. He is the master recorder for a B-movie studio. While out recording sound for the film, he witnesses a tragic car accident involving Sally. Jack is able to save Sally who does not remember what happened. Officials seem hell bent on writing it off as an accident but the audio that Jack manages to record indicates that something more sinister is at play.
THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974)
Here is another film by Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men) that really show’s off his skills as a director/producer. Warren Beatty is remarkably cast as reporter Joseph Frady. Frady is among a group of several reporters who are present when State Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce) is assassinated in the Seattle Space Needle. Later, a colleague approaches him because several of the reporters that witnessed the assassination are dying under odd circumstances. Frady’s investigation leads him to the Parallax Corporation whose mission and training tactics are on the edge of what we’d call ethical.
Costa-Gavras’ Z probably does not get the accolades it truly deserves as being one of the more foreboding films in cinema history. Yves Montand is Z, a prominent leftist writer who is assassinated after speaking at a nuclear disarmament rally. Based on factual events, Z was banned in Greece for many years. Z depicts how subversive individuals are treated in modern society. Every cover-up leads you down the rabbit-hole and it does not disappoint in offering a taut political thriller.
Many people were unaware of Operation Wrath of God until Munich was released in 2005. The Israeli government put together a secret squad of Mossad agents who were in charge of hunting down members of Black September, the Palestinian terrorist group responsible for kidnapping and murdering Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. But MUNICH is not just a straight up revenge story, it brings up questions of morality and justice during one of the bleakest periods in world history.
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)
No political thriller list would be complete without a Hitchcock film. Dr. Ben McKenna (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife Jo McKenna (Doris Day) travel to Paris for a medical conference along with their young son, Hank. They decide to do some more traveling and go to French Morocco where a stranger they met earlier in France has been stabbed. Before he dies, he whispers to Ben about an assassination attempt in London. To complicate matters, Hank is kidnapped during the fracas.
THE CONVERSATION (1974)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, THE CONVERSATION predicts the hyper intelligence gathering, invasion of privacy world that we now inhabit. Gene Hackman stars as Henry Caul, a surveillance expert who has his own private operation out of San Francisco. He is a heavily guarded and suspicious man who lives in a spartan apartment that contains no telephone. He excels at what he does but is deficient in interpersonal interactions. While Caul feels he has no responsibility in the ways in which his wire taps and recordings are used, he is wracked with guilt over a past wiretap that had tragic results.
HIDDEN AGENDA (1990)
This film takes place in Belfast in the late 1980s when a human rights activist (Frances McDormand) investigates the death of one of her colleagues. A tough policeman (Brian Cox) helps her follow the conspiracy up to the highest levels of government. The production quality combined with excellent performances from McDormand and Cox give viewers the feeling of eavesdropping.
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