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Genre Defining: Political/Conspiracy Thriller

AllThePresidentsMen.jpgI was wondering what category I was going to tackle next and while chatting at work I thought thrillers, but then the thriller genre is really quite wide, and then it hit me. The big thing just now is the political thriller.

So this feature will cover the political thriller, and I'm looking for you to help decide what film really defines the genre.

The Parallax View
Instantly my mind leaps to The Parallax View, a film I saw a long time ago starring Warren Beatty and directed by Alan J. Pakula. It tells the story of a reporter who is investigating the assassination of an important U.S. Senator. During the investigation he finds that there are a number of other deaths, this time of people present during the assassination, one by one they are being murdered, and that a company called The Parallax Corporation seems to be linked in some way with a secretive training course they offer. So the reporter signs up to investigate.

I remember when I watched this for the first time it really packed a powerful punch. I was pulled in by the way the scenes were allowed to play out, with dialogue, silences and lingering character views that made the film feel very realistic.

The film was adapted from the Loren Singer novel (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) adapted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. who co-wrote the film and has another cracking political thriller to his name, Three Days of the Condor.

Three Days of the Condor
Sydney Pollack directs the adaptation of the novel by James Grady (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) which stars Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow in the story of a CIA agent, not really suited to field work, who finds that the other members of his team have all been murdered, and he has to try and find out who is responsible and why to try and save himself, but it seems everyone is out to kill him and he doesn't know who to trust.

I do remember seeing this film ages ago, but I just can't remember that much about it apart from a mental glimpse of Redford in a telephone box seeming rather agitated. Where does this rank with the political thrillers?

The Manchurian Candidate
The Manchurian Candidate is perhaps one of the strongest political thrillers around, the original I'm talking about of course, from the novel by Richard Condon (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk). It features a superb performance from Frank Sinatra who is also caught up in a conspiracy theory about the film, that of him pulling it from general release after the assassination of President Kennedy. It seems that wasn't the case though and Sinatra was simply neglectful in the keeping marketing the film's distribution rights. Whichever you believe the film did disappear from public view for quite some time.

The film tells the story of a soldier who begins to grow suspicious of what happened to his troop when they were attacked in Korea. The official word, and what all the soldiers believe, is that one of the soldiers saved them all and came back a hero, decorated with the Medal of Honour. However there are cracks appearing in the story, and the Commanding Officer, played by Sinatra, begins to investigate, finding out that something very sinister happened to them in Korea, something that affects all their futures.

The Manchurian Candidate creates a great thriller, with Sinatra's superbly paranoid and confused performance coupled with John Frankenheimer's direction and photography, we do get something very special from the genre. It is undoubtedly miles better than the original, and possibly one of the leading thrillers on film.

The Star Chamber
The Star Chamber is a Michael Douglas film, now don't let that put you off because Peter Hyams is at the helm of this superb thriller that resonates today more than ever. Douglas plays a Judge who is utterly disgusted and disillusioned when he has to let an obviously guilty criminal free due to a simple legal technicality. That's when another Judge approaches him and invites him into the Star Chamber.

This is a secret organisation of Judges who hold trials over those who have been released but are obviously guilty. If they find them truly guilty they hire a hitman to kill the offender, handing out their own form of justice.

Douglas' character is, at first, drawn to the group, but he really does begin to struggle with his conscience, especially when he is presiding over the case of two obviously guilty child molesters and murderers.

A powerful film that has a dramatic and powerful message, one which I really do think has never really disappeared from our society, and one of Douglas' better performances.

Capricorn One
While we're talking of Peter Hyams, there really is no other place to go than Capricorn One which he also directed as well as writing. This is one of the greatest political and conspiracy thrillers that I've ever watched. The film taps into one of the biggest conspiracy theories there is, that of the moon landings and whether or not they really happened.

Elliot Gould delivers a superb performance as the investigative reporter who begins to get suspicious of the events of Nasa's fully televised first mission to Mars. Just before the launch of the mission the astronauts are pulled off the rocket and secretly taken to a film studio in the middle of a remote desert. Here they stay for months, as they are forced to act out the mission and the landing.

As the suspicion grows of the reporter and his investigation closes in on Nasa, so do the actual crew begin to grow suspicious of the fact that they may not be allowed to survive after the mission films its final scene.

Perhaps one of the best political thrillers in my mind, probably because it taps into a conspiracy that is so real and argued about to this very day. It also has some very strong performances and really is allowed to deliver some non-Hollywood moments.

James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson star as the astronauts and the film also features Telly Savalas and Karen Black.

All the President's Men
This list really wouldn't be right if it didn't contain this film, perhaps the ultimate political thriller as it features the real life story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who investigated the famous Watergate scandal, and with the help of the informant Deep Throat, uncovered the truth and helped bring down a Presidency.

The Alan J. Pakula film stars Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, and a whole list of other recognisable faces. It delivers a superb film which uses two features of political thrillers to great effect - real world dialogue including silences, and inaction. Both these aspects deliver that feeling of powerlessness and help build great levels of tension and suspense throughout.

You do really believe that both Hoffman and Redford are the real characters discovering and reacting to events as they appear on screen. It has an unscripted immediacy to it that helps in the belief aspect of the audience.

The film is taken from Woodward and Bernstein's book of the events (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), and therefore instantly propels itself up the rankings of political thrillers.

Marathon Man
Dustin Hoffman reappears in another thriller in one of his best performances to date, as the man caught up in the middle of a conspiracy involving stolen diamonds, a Nazi war criminal and a government agent trying to track him down. Laurence Olivier and Roy Scheider also star in this superb thriller that comes from the William Goldman novel (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk). Goldman also wrote the screenplay which John Schlesinger directed.

This really does have some iconic moments, particularly the dentist's drill and those incredibly scary words "Is it safe?". Typically Hitchcockian, Hoffman has no idea what is happening around him, and he learns the truth as we do.

It's a very well crafted thriller that manages to raise the suspense as Hoffman runs around with his growing confusion, and when he begins to make a stand he pulls you right along with him.

Thirteen Days
Roger Donaldson directs the film that looks at the Thirteen Days that led the world to the closest to nuclear war that we've ever been, literally minutes away, something that the U.S. and Russia seem intent on heading towards once again, perhaps they are trying to break the record.

There's a great line up of talent here, and not the normal names you might expect. Bruce Greenwood plays John F. Kennedy, Steven Culp plays Robert F. Kennedy, as well as such names as Kevin Costner and Dylan Baker.

The story is taken from the novel The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) which is stunning in its authenticity since it contains the transcripts of the recordings from the White House itself, at times within the group who helped define and resolve the crisis, only the President himself knew that the tape was running, and there's even a time when he is on his own and speaks directly to the tape.

The film is incredibly powerful and it really does manage to convey just how incredibly dangerous these days were, the gravity of the decisions they made, and how difficult they found them. It really does strike home just how close the U.S. came to nuclear war with Russia, and how quickly these lessons are forgotten.

No Way Out
Once again we find that the Director of one classic thriller brought us another one, No Way Out, which also stars Kevin Costner in a performance I would say is his best ever.

This is actually a remake of sorts, the original film is called The Big Clock taken from the novel of the same name (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) and stars Ray Milland, Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Sullivan. Kenneth Fearing wrote the novel but didn't write the screenplay for The Big Clock, however he did write the screenplay for No Way Out.

The story is about the hunt for a Russian spy within the U.S. intelligence, which has twists and turns throughout. I won't tell you much more because I'd be scared of spoiling it, and it is a superb film and a wonderfully written story.

It also stars Gene Hackman, Sean Young and Will Patton, all of whom deliver blistering performances. This is one of my personal favourite thrillers of all time, and really does surprise with Costner's performance.

There's another connection to the previous film with Kevin Costner taking the lead once again. He creates another great character in that of the lawyer Jim Garrison who decides to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, another great real life conspiracy theory.

He, and his team, begin to investigate the events behind the assassination and finds that there's something else to the events rather than just one lone gunman.

It delivers a superb performance from Kevin Costner, particularly in the closing courtroom scenes. He's backed by a superb cast and Oliver Stone's best paranoid film-making. Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau are just a few of the superb names attached.

The big question is could it all be true, and that conspiracy aspect really does fill the film and it does a superb job of pulling you in and believing that perhaps the conspiracy is true. Makes sure you see the special edition.

For me, those are the political thrillers that really jump out at me, and how interesting it is that they are all conspiracy based as well, something that makes me think I'd better retitle the feature slightly.

This list has been really good work for me as well, as during the writing I've rediscovered some amazing films which I'm going to put on my rental queue immediately.

What do you think of these films though, do you agree that they are the best political\conspiracy films that are out there? Are there better, and why?

Other Genre Defining Features:
Political/Conspiracy Thriller



Good topic,

I usually love these types of films because they are smart, and you feel intelectual during the unfolding of the story.

A few good ones which come to mind are:
- The Contender w/ Jeff Bridges.
- Citizen Kane (which is much better then most think)
- True Colors w/ John Cusak and James Spader
- The Bonfire of the Vanities w/ Tom Hanks. Which is more corporate but still same idea.

The Contender is terrific. One of the better ones I've seen.

Just watched Michael Clayton last night. While not political, it is certainly corporation/conspiracy based. A fine film to add to the list.

For some reason my brain is melting on me and I can't think of any others off the top of my head.

"A Few Good Men"?

Even "GI Jane", to some extent, has political intrigue and elements of conspiracy to it.

My favorite political/conspiracy thriller for all time is All the President's Men. And good choice on the feature photo there too. The first time I saw it on DVD like 3 years ago now I sat there for a long time and was stunned by it all.

I am looking forward to see Three Days of the Condor, The Star Chamber and Capricorn One based on your recommendation. I have only seen the remake of The Manchurian Candidate which failed to impress me so maybe the original will do the trick.

Yes there should realize the reader to RSS my feed to RSS commentary, quite simply


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