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msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/1/2006 8:03:39 PM ET 2006-08-02T00:03:39
COMMENTARY

“The Interpreter,” starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, is the latest example of a subgenre so marginalized nobody knows what to call it anymore. These films used to be dubbed political thrillers — until the politics were slowly drained away. Now they’re often lumped with crime or action or spy thrillers. One Web site even includes “All the President’s Men” among its “paranoid thrillers.” Which recalls the old joke: I’m only paranoid because everyone in the Nixon White House is against me.

What makes a political thriller? The basic plot is an ordinary man pulling an innocent thread which leads to a mess of corruption. The corruption should be political or governmental in nature. The movie should be plot-driven. There should be thrills.

While the form is thriving in both novels and on TV (“24”), it’s dying on film. Only three political thrillers have grossed over $100 million in the U.S., and none of these was very political. Let’s face it: the great unwashed love explosions but don’t vote, while the cognoscenti are intrigued by politics but can’t be bothered with genre films. There’s just no audience.

Ah, but once upon a time…

Outside in
Political thrillers came of age in the early 1960s during a frigid part of the Cold War — Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin Wall, et al. If the threat of the world ending in the blink of an eye didn’t make you paranoid enough you had President Eisenhower’s January 1961 farewell address to the nation, where the man who represented the military-industrial complex warned us all about the military-industrial complex. In that instant he sounded less like the President than a kidnap victim trying to signal the authorities: Hey, FYI, but the people in here are NUTS.

John Frankenheimer’s “Seven Days in May” (1964) took the military portion of this threat seriously enough and imagined a telegenic general (Burt Lancaster) attempting a coup against a liberal president (Frederick March). This was the second of Frankenheimer’s one-two political-thriller punch, the first being “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), where Frank Sinatra plays a man whose bad dreams lead him to discover Communist corruption in, of all places, the anti-Communist movement. Much has been made of Angela Lansbury’s chilling, controlling mother of all spies, but some applause, and a few chuckles please, for James Gregory’s blustery, thundering McCarthyite, who tells us there are 207...or 104...or, no, 275 communists in the defense (rather than the state) department, before finally being allowed to settle on the Heinz-ready number “57.”

In style, Frankenheimer’s two films couldn’t be more different — “Candidate” is sweaty and hallucinatory, while “May” is distant and cold — but they share a basic sensibility with both Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe” (1964), and Fred Zinnemann’s “The Day of the Jackal,” which, although released in 1973, is set in the early ’60s, and that sensibility is this: Our good government is being threatened by outside corruption. This corruption may come from the left (Communists) or the right (militarists) or neither (computers), but it’s there, and it’s outside, and it’s trying to get in. Basically it’s a ’50s sensibility. We, inside, good; they, outside, bad.

Inside out
The ’60s changed all that. JFK jumpstarted the decade — made it all jazzy and sexy — and then he was assassinated. So was Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Most of these leaders were at least nominally outside the system; all stood for change; all were killed within a five-year period. Suddenly “outside” didn’t seem the problem anymore.

Costa-Gavras’ “Z” (1969) is the first political thriller to reflect this sensibility. Set in France, and based on the assassination of a Greek politician in 1963, the film struck such a chord with assassination-weary Americans that it became only the second foreign-language film — after “The Grand Illusion” in 1938 — to be nominated best picture. Yves Montand’s populist, left-wing Deputy goes down early, and the picture turns on whether the unnamed Examining Magistrate a) will uncover the assassination plot, and b) prosecute the high-ranking military officials responsible. He does both, but a quick, narrated epilogue informs us that the forces of repression take over and ban, among other things, Dostoevsky, mini-skirts, freedom of the press, and the letter “Z,” which means “He is alive” in ancient Greek. Political thrillers tend not to have happy endings, but throughout the ’70s, following “Z’s” example, they would be complete downers.

This was the new model. Instead of a decent government being threatened by outside corruption we would have a corrupt government being threatened by outside decency. In “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), Robert Redford uncovers a rogue CIA within the CIA. In “The Parallax View” (1974), Warren Beatty uncovers a corporation that assassinates populist leaders who threaten its interests. Both films were written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and both have their problems. “Condor” gets bogged down in an unnecessary romance between Two Big Stars, while “Parallax” is just idiotic. A big corporation offs political leaders in spectacular ways — atop the Space Needle, for example — and then kills witnesses in subtle ways. So why not off the political leaders in subtle ways? Wouldn’t that be easier? Oh, and that door Warren Beatty runs to at the end? Director Alan J. Pakula tries to make it represent freedom, but it’s just a door. On the other side he would still be running.

Real life was tossing up much better examples of political corruption than Hollywood could imagine — one reason why “All the President’s Men” (1976) is the best of the genre. The thread that Woodward and Bernstein keep pulling on leads not to outlandish schemes but to small, petty men. “The truth is,” Deep Throat tells Woodward about the Nixon White House, “these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” It’s a quote that never goes out of style.

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The apolitical political thriller
Reporters were often the protagonists of these ’70s thrillers, but the more glamorized they got in real life, the less ready-made they were for the role of cinematic heroes. Meanwhile the notion of a decent populist leader — as in “Z” and “Parallax” — became laughable to a cynical population. When Brian de Palma made “Blow Out” (1981), his spin on Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” the villain is, yes, a G. Gordon Liddy-like rogue plumber working for the establishment, but the opposition leader is a man who dies in a Chappaquiddick-like car crash. He’s not a shining knight; he’s a scoundrel sniffing for nookie.

So if the outside leader was now corrupt, where was the decency? Nowhere, apparently. In “No Way Out” (1987), Gene Hackman plays the Secretary of Defense who accidentally kills his mistress and then tries to cover it up; Kevin Costner plays the subordinate in charge of a phony investigation which will lead — he knows — back to himself, an innocent man. Except he’s not innocent. In the final reel we find out he’s a Communist spy.

“There’s no cause worth fighting for, Frank,” John Malkovich’s chilling assassin tells Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire” (1993). “All we have is the game. I’m on offense, you’re on defense. [And] the clock’s ticking.” “Fire” is one of the better post-’70s political thrillers yet it still exemplifies how apolitical these movies have become. Malkovich’s assassin is ex-CIA. He killed for us and now he’s after the President of the United States. It’s a case of the chickens coming home to roost — as Malcolm X said of the JFK assassination — but the film glosses over this message in place of ... the game. Eastwood saves a president who is a blank slate. What matters is Eastwood; his character gets redeemed. His ending is happy.

Yes, occasionally political messages get smuggled in by the filmmakers — pro-environmental in “The Pelican Brief” (1993); pro-civil liberties in “Enemy of the State” (1998) — but these messages don’t resonate. We remember other things: Julia Roberts’ startled shriek when the car blows up; Will Smith running through the streets of D.C. in a bathrobe. Politics is simply a backdrop for the star-fueled adventure we see in the foreground, and this backdrop is at once more cynical — we actually expect our leaders to kill us — and more innocent.

In “Three Days of the Condor,” John Houseman is asked if he misses the kind of action he saw after the Great War, and he responds, in that great Houseman voice, “I miss that kind of clarity.” The ’70s were all about a lack of clarity. America was in full adolescent mode back then — everybody sucked — but rather than fighting towards adulthood we’ve retreated to the false clarity of childhood. Whether the President of the United States is the rough-sex murderer of “Absolute Power” (1997) or the “Get off my plane” action hero of “Air Force One” (1997), or even the flight-suit-wearing President Bush of “Mission Accomplished” (2003), we know what to think of him. He’s a cartoon. And every morning is Saturday morning.

Karl Rove is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life
So is there any hope left for the political thriller? In a word: Yes. The freedom vs. security issues raised in “Enemy of the State” have a new complexity in a post-9/11 America (Jon Voight’s villain doesn’t sound so nutty anymore), while the industrial angle of Ike’s old “military-industrial complex” is still rife with possible villainy — as ENRON, and the updated “Manchurian Candidate,” point out. And don’t tell me something can’t be done with Karl Rove.

The material’s there; the question is whether a grown-up film can be made from it all. The politics to worry about, in other words, is Hollywood’s.

Critic Erik Lundegaard thinks Robert Redford should have received an Academy Award nomination for his phone-handling skills in “All the President’s Men.”

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