Marc Maron opened his standup set on his new Netflix special Too Real with the following words: “All right. I can’t take it. I don’t know what he’s gonna do next. People that voted for him, they don’t know what he’s gonna do next.”
We’re back in that kind of political climate again. It’s like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Nixon administration or post-9/11 America led by Dubya. We’re back in the paranoid saddle. Everyone’s panicking. Are we going to go to war with North Korea? Is America in bed with Russian spies now? Is ISIS going to actually win?
The era of Nixon and the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War brought on a tidal wave of paranoid political thrillers from the greats of cinematic storytelling: Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Sydney Pollack, Brian De Palma. We can sit back, eat some popcorn, and convince ourselves everything is going to be okay.
So, anyway, before North Korea nukes us, here are the 15 greatest paranoid political thrillers to get you through Donald Trump’s Presidency.
15. Blow Out
Brian De Palma is the king of stylized violence, and his response to the political paranoia of the 1970s was this modernization of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blowup. It tells the story of a sound recorder played by John Travolta who is working on a slasher movie that he needs to find the perfect scream for and he accidentally records the audio of a Presidential hopeful’s assassination.
The movie contains allusions to all kinds of political incidents of then-recent times: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Watergate scandal, the Chappaquiddick incident – the list goes on.The powerful politicians and corporations that run the world will stop at nothing to destroy Travolta’s evidence and, if necessary, kill him.
In the end, he simply can’t win, and tragically, thanks to the powers that control the world, (SPOILER ALERT!) all that Travolta gains out of the situation is the perfect scream for the horror flick he’s working on. As with a lot of these paranoid political movies, there’s no justice and it’s simply alarming. But it’s effective.
14. The Candidate
The poster for The Candidate is one of the greatest cases of a movie poster summing up what the movie is about perfectly in one simple yet powerful image. It’s designed like a campaign poster for Robert Redford’s character, except the mouth is rubbed out. The movie is about how a politician is just a face, as Redford’s campaign manager influences his political views.
The Candidate is a contemplative study of opposing political views, as Redford plays a staunch Democrat whose shady campaign manager gradually waters down his Democratic Party ideologies, and eventually his platform becomes a kind of half and half of liberal and conservative, which wins him immense popularity and a ton of votes, but at the cost of what he truly believes in.
These themes are more relevant than ever today in the age of fake news and biased media outlets.
Z is an epic foreign movie that runs for over two hours, so it’s a pretty big ask. But it’s worth it, as it’s the structure and style of Z that inspired Oliver Stone’s take on the Kennedy assassination in his making of JFK. It’s a thrilling account of democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis’ assassination in 1963.
Remember who else got assassinated in 1963? That’s right, Kennedy. Costa-Gavras’ Z is marked by its satirical portrayal of politics and dark sense of humor, which took some balls to make a funny movie about a real life assassination six years after the fact.
The movie claims to be a fictionalized version of events, but it’s the thinnest veneer of fictionalization; it’s very real and raw and honest. As far as political thrillers go, Z is well worth a watch as it’s the pre-JFK.
Syriana is a dark geopolitical thriller starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright. Through the intertwining points of view of these three men, we see just how devastating the effects of the oil industry are around the world.
The perspectives we get are the political impacts from Clooney’s CIA perspective, the economic impacts from Damon’s energy industry perspective, and the legal impacts from Wright’s DC attorney perspective. It’s a vast story, but it plays like a documentary even though it isn’t. It’s so real and eye-opening.
It’s like Food, Inc., except it’s about oil and not food, and it’s a fictional studio movie and not a documentary. It was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who gave us another geopolitical thriller in his screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.
Whenever there’s a hot button topical issue in politics, HBO is there to make a movie about it. Recount tells the story of one of the most startling political upsets in recent memory: the 2000 US Presidential election. Republican George W. Bush was running against Democrat Al Gore. Of course we know that Bush won, but did he really?
Gore jumped the gun conceding the election to Bush after potentially false information was revealed about the election by ultra right wing Fox News, and what followed were lengthy recounts for a tense period of time to determine whether or not Gore actually lost.
A-list stars like Kevin Spacey, John Hurt, Laura Dern, and Denis Leary headline this dramatic, engaging, and deeply troubling docudrama from director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong. It’s well worth checking out, because it’s a fascinating story.
10. Seven Days in May
Seven Days in May is one of the deepest, darkest, and most paranoid political stories ever told on film. It stars Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Ava Gardner in the story of a militia that plan a takeover of the United States government after they successfully disarm the Soviet Union.
This was the story of the worst fears of America at the time as the Cold War was raging and everyone was terrified of nuclear war. Is that a geopolitical climate that sounds familiar? That’s because it’s happening again, right at this very moment, so Seven Days in May is relevant again.
It’s not a nostalgic view of our old fears. They’re our actual fears again. Who saw that coming? The power of Seven Days in May comes mostly from its screenplay by the master of playing on what scares you, Mr. Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame.
9. Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor is the story of a CIA researcher who goes on his lunch break and comes back to find that all his co-workers have been murdered, and he has no idea who the hell he can trust.
It was directed by the brilliant Sydney Pollack and its cast is chock full of A-list talent, including Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson (the original Uncle Ben), and Max von Sydow. The screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.
The movie captured the paranoia surrounding the Watergate scandal perfectly. According to Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus, “this post-Watergate thriller captures the paranoid tenor of the times.” Roger Ebert wrote, “Three Days of the Condor is a well-made thriller, tense and involving, and the scary thing, in these months after Watergate, is that it’s all too believable.”
Argo was a phenomenal success back in 2012. Remember when Ben Affleck’s career was going off the rails with crappy movies like Daredevil and Gigli? And his political thriller about a hostage crisis in Iran that he was directing and starring in seemed misguided? Well, he really showed us.
The movie grossed over $200 million worldwide, won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, and immortalized the phrase, “Argo fuck yourself!” He plays a CIA operative named Tony Mendez who rescues six U.S. diplomats from the embassy in Tehran by pretending to be scouting locations for a science fiction movie.
It’s a story that’s so insane that it had to be true. Roger Ebert called the movie “spellbinding” and “surprisingly funny,” and wrote, “the craft in this film is rare. It is so easy to manufacture a thriller from chases and gunfire, and so very hard to fine-tune it out of exquisite timing and a plot that’s so clear to us we wonder why it isn’t obvious to the Iranians. After all, who in their right mind would believe a space opera was being filmed in Iran during the hostage crisis?”
7. The Parallax View
Directed by the king of the paranoid political thriller, Alan J. Pakula, The Parallax View stars Warren Beatty as a journalist whose investigation into the shady corporation that orchestrated a political assassination leads him down a very dark and dangerous path.
Entertainment Weekly critic Chris Nashawaty wrote, “The Parallax View is a mother of a thriller…and Beatty, always an underrated actor thanks (or no thanks) to his off-screen rep as a Hollywood lothario, gives a hell of a performance in a career that’s been full of them.”
It won the Critics Award at the Avoriaz Film Festival and it was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Picture. That’s a testament to movie’s sheer power as a dark portrait of what goes on behind the scenes of the dirty world of politics.
6. The Day of the Jackal
The Day of the Jackal tells the story of a professional assassin (read: John Wick) known only as “the Jackal” who is hired to kill Charles de Gaulle, the President of France. This is yet another paranoid political thriller that was made during the tumultuous times of the Cold War.
Roger Ebert was a huge fan of the film, writing a glowing review of it: “I wasn’t prepared for how good it really is: it’s not just a suspense classic, but a beautifully executed example of filmmaking. It’s put together like a fine watch. The screenplay meticulously assembles an incredible array of material, and then [director Fred] Zinnemann choreographs it so that the story – complicated as it is – unfolds in almost documentary starkness.”
Ebert added that Zinnemann has “mastered every detail,” and concluded, “there are some words you hesitate to use in a review, because they sound so much like advertising copy, but in this case I can truthfully say that the movie is spellbinding.” That surely made it onto the poster.
5. The Manchurian Candidate
Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury star in this taut, tense thriller based on the novel of the same name by Richard Condon and directed by film legend John Frankenheimer. It’s a black and white suspense movie with elements of the film noir genre about the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
It was released in 1962, right at the height of the Cold War. It was like releasing The Interview for a wide audience, except it wasn’t a comedy and it had a deeper political exploration than the James Franco/Seth Rogen farce.
According to the critical consensus appended to Rotten Tomatoes’ 98 per cent score for The Manchurian Candidate, the movie is “a classic blend of satire and political thriller that was uncomfortably prescient in its own time.”
Klute is the first part of what is referred to as Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoid trilogy.” It stars Donald Sutherland as a cop who is assigned to find a missing man. He has only one lead on the case: a high-end New York prostitute (Jane Fonda) with whom he develops an unexpected romantic relationship.
The movie may be called Klute after Sutherland’s character, but it’s Fonda who steals the movie. In fact, Roger Ebert thought it should’ve been called Bree after her character.
He wrote, “what is it about Jane Fonda that makes her such a fascinating actress to watch? She has a sort of nervous intensity that keeps her so firmly locked into a film character that the character actually seems distracted by things that come up in the movie.” She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her part in this movie — and rightly so.
Trust the poster boy for political controversy, Oliver Stone, to make a devilishly intricate thriller about the various conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. One of the main controversies surrounding the movie was its implication that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor as President, played a hand in the killing.
But it’s not really about answering the questions about JFK’s assassination. It’s a portrait of how America was scrambling for an answer when the details seemed too unusual for it to be as black and white as Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone.
Headlined by a star-studded cast of Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, and Sissy Spacek, JFK is a three-hour web of conspiracies. It’s deeply engaging and Time magazine called it “a knockout.”
2. All the President’s Men
All the President’s Men, based on Bernstein and Woodward’s book of the same name, is an absolute masterpiece, and a classic of cinema. Alan J. Pakula directed this story of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward investigating the infamous Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation as President of the United States.
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford deliver standout performances with truly great chemistry in the lead roles as the pair of reporters. The AFI named them the 27th greatest heroes in the history of film.
The movie is so great, in fact, that it’s been chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It’s the story of the guys who brought down the Nixon administration — what’s more significant than that?
1. The Conversation
Francis Ford Coppola is remembered for his cinematic classics Apocalypse Now and The Godfather trilogy, but there’s one movie that’s every bit as brilliant, but far more intimate. Though it works in its favour, The Conversation has been largely forgotten by mainstream audiences.
It tells the story of a surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) who records audio of a murder and investigates it further.
The Conversation has been interpreted as a political commentary film; the surveillance equipment used by Hackman’s character Harry Caul is the exact same equipment that was used by the Richard Nixon administration to spy on political opponents before the Watergate scandal.
The Conversation lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Coppola’s other 1974 masterpiece, The Godfather Part II.