Governments lie. They cheat. They steal. Sometimes the blame comes from within: corrupt individuals who’d conned their ways into the halls of power with no moral compass beyond their own self-aggrandizement. Sometimes, the fault lies within ourselves: We’re drawn to populist politicians who tell us what we want to hear even when we very much ought to know better.
The 1970s, in particular, loom large in movies about government corruption, even in later films. It’s not that no one had ever mistrusted the government before, but it’s the era when anti-government feeling truly entered the zeitgeist. Then, as now, people couldn’t agree on much, but they could agree that political leaders weren’t to be trusted. From there, the ‘80s saw Iran-Contra, the ‘90s saw the Clinton impeachment, the ‘00s the Iraq War — and those are just the marquee scandals.
The less said about the modern era of politics, perhaps, the better. But we may find it helpful to go back a bit in time, and/or overseas, to find movies that hold up a harsh mirror to government corruption.
The Parallax View (1974)
Sitting squarely in the middle of the Vietnam War and sandwiched between the assassinations of the 1960s and Watergate, director Alan J. Pakula created a masterpiece of political paranoia that conveys a sense of mounting dread with each and every noir-inspired frame. Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a journalist who gets caught up in an incredibly complex conspiracy after he witnesses the murder of a sitting senator and presidential candidate. There’s much more than simple assassination going on, but there’s also more to Frady’s quest for truth than simple heroism; unsettlingly, the movie’s thriller plot line conceals a believably complex world in which there are no easy answers, and in which the best of intentions can make things much worse.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
What became Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove began life as a drama: Based on the thriller novel Red Alert, Kubrick intended to play it straight. It wasn’t very far into the screenplay-writing process, however, that the director realised that real-world concepts like the nuclear “balance of terror” and “mutually assured destruction” were better suited to farce than serious drama. The result is one of cinema’s most perfect send-ups of government overreach, personality politics, and the behind-the-scenes dust-ups that have frequently had devastating consequences for humans without the privilege of their own quiet war rooms.
Shin Godzilla (2016)
The Godzilla series has always had more to say, despite its reputation as a series of monster smash-ups (well, OK, not always — sometimes they’re just monster smash-ups). The first movie pointedly and poignantly spoke to Japan’s postwar, post-nuclear anxieties, with a justifiable and righteous anger directed at the United States following not just the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the much more recent revelation of nearby nuclear tests when the entire crew of a fishing boat displayed signs of radiation sickness. Shin Godzilla’s concerns, six decades later, are directed inward. Following the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Ōkuma, the film takes aim at the kind of hidebound and self-protective bureaucracy that makes appropriate crisis response nearly impossible. The government officials here are far more concerned with protecting their positions and covering their butts than they are with saving lives — a style of leadership that goes well beyond Japan’s borders.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Andy Griffith’s greatest performance is his most chilling, and prescient. Here, he plays a one-time alcoholic drifter whose folksy good humour and facility for the guitar land him a radio deal with the help of a journalist who becomes his promoter and girlfriend, ultimately steering him into the world of politics — discovering much too late that she’s created a monster. The rise of Larry Rhodes foretells the Donald Trump era, but real events have overtaken the film: The secret recordings that threatened to bring down Griffith’s character only boosted the prospect of the former President.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
A relatively early masterpiece from director John Frankenheimer, the film was a victim of its own tragically prescient timing: Released just a year before the assassination of President Kennedy, that real-life event overtook the movie and interest in revisiting it waned until a critical reevaluation decades later. On one level, the movie is a Cold War thriller about a Medal of Honour recipient brainwashed to serve as a communist agent. If that’s all it were, it wouldn’t be much more than a period piece; Frankenheimer and company, instead, take aim at the ways in which Americans are easily manipulated and distracted — Lawrence Harvey’s Raymond Shaw is able to go as far as he does because people are blinded by his military achievements. Meanwhile, Joseph McCarthy-esque demagogues use accusations to deflect from real dangers. It also boasts an absolutely chilling performance from Angela Lansbury as Shaw’s scheming and vaguely incestuous mother.
Seven Days in May (1964)
John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate sees President Fredric March working on a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviet Union, a development that doesn’t impress a popular general played by Burt Lancaster. He’s planning a coup, one which is uncovered by Kirk Douglas over the course of the title’s seven days. It’s another trenchant look at the ways in which both personal charisma and military power can have undue sway over American politics.
It’s the ending here, that I won’t spoil, that makes Z so darkly memorable — which is not to say that the movie isn’t a classic through and through. Costa-Gavras’ satire of government corruption was released smack in the middle of a period of military junta control in Greece, but also in a global period of political assassinations and wars of false pretenses (aren’t they all?). A magistrate investigates the political murder of a left-wing politician, only to come up against an increasingly absurd, but nevertheless believable, series of walls and obfuscations.
The Conversation (1974)
The Conversation isn’t about Watergate or Vietnam, but it speaks as well as any movie (and better than most) to the well-earned political paranoia of the era. Gene Hackman (never better than he is here) plays surveillance expert Harry Caul, already desperately paranoid when he overhears a conversation he shouldn’t about a potential murder. Released in the same year as Richard Nixon’s resignation (ably aided by his own White House tapes), the movie is prescient about the growing surveillance state, and also conflicted. Harry means well, and there are clearly benefits to the work he does, but there are also the very obvious privacy concerns, as well as the potential to misinterpret situations and entire lives based on out-of-context bits of information. There’s really nothing branched here that we’re not still grappling with, nearly 50 years later.
No Way Out (1987)
A classic of the erotic 80s, there’s not much of a broad message here, but the movie’s convoluted Washington power games speak to the Iran-Contra era, when figures like Oliver North (who Kevin Costner channels here) were literally shredding the country’s largely misplaced faith in the moral authority of the Reagan administration. This one’s got murdered mistresses, Soviet spies, and a Pentagon manhunt — it’s a slightly silly, but very entertaining period gem lent some extra gravitas by the presence of Gene Hackman.
Absolute Power (1997)
The king of the conspiracy thriller, Gene Hackman, makes just about anything watchable, and he gives his all playing President Alan Richmond, an establishment figure rather than the conspiracy-buff types he’s played in other, similarly themed movies. In pop culture, 1990s paranoia tended to involve either aliens or Bill Clinton-fuelled sexual morality, and this one takes the latter to the extreme when master thief Clint Eastwood conveniently witnesses the murder of a presidential mistress by the Secret Service, and becomes entangled in the ensuing coverup when he’s pegged as a prime suspect. It’s rather entertainingly bonkers, but captures the sense of an era when White House hanky pinky was on everyone’s mind.
Wag the Dog (1997)
Just before the Bill Clinton impeachment (and a suspiciously-timed bombing in Iraq), and a few years before themes and obfuscations of the Iraq War, Barry Levinson made this all-star, Strangelove-esque satire about a Hollywood producer tasked with creating a fake war with Albania in order to conceal a Presidential sex scandal. Though a dark comedy, the film’s plot wouldn’t be the dumbest reason we’ve gone to war — not by a long shot.
Enemy of the State (1998)
It’s been suggested that Gene Hackman’s character in Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, Brill Lyle, is so close in temperament to The Conversation’s Harry Caul that they might very well be the same character. Which is interesting, especially given that it caps Hackman’s long run of political thrillers…but they’re also very different movies. This one is everything The Conversation isn’t: big, loud, flashy, and more interested in action set-pieces than in saying anything coherent about surveillance. That doesn’t mean that it’s not quite a bit of fun, with large helpings of that X-Files-ish style of heightened political paranoia that was soon to give way to actual events. Will Smith plays well-meaning lawyer Robert Clayton Dean, who’s caught up in a wild conspiracy following the government-sponsored assassination of a political candidate.
The X-Files (1998)
The X-Files’ overarching mythology was always far too broad to ever really amount to anything coherent; it’s also hard to get too worked up over secret alien colonists (or something) when the real world poses so many more immediate threats. Still, there’s no question that the show and its spin-offs exemplify a ‘90s style of anti-government paranoia — one that imagines political officials as being competent, focused, and forward-thinking enough to manage any number of conspiracies over the course of decades. Th whole thing was, however, surprisingly prescient about our current world of conspiracies, one in which everyone wants to believe everything. As a standalone, the first movie summarises the X-Files experience fairly adeptly, with government agents concealing the existence of an ancient alien virus with the help of some very nasty bees.
Il Divo (2008)
The docudrama about the wildly popular, but wildly corrupt, seven-time Prime Minister of Italy, Giulio Andreotti, eschews most of the boring biopic conventions by treating the story with equal horror and gallows humour. Through various (alleged) schemes, trials, mob ties, and, possibly, a number of ordered assassinations, Andreotti remained relatively popular — a fact the film treats with an appropriate level of farce.
Fair Game (2010)
While there are some debated historical details in Fair Game, it personalizes and dramatizes the events surrounding the Iraq War, and the high-stakes game of bullshittery that lead to a massively bloody conflict based on some entirely made-up intelligence regarding Iraqi nuclear capabilities. Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame, a CIA operative whose identity was outed to the media by the Bush White House in retaliation for statements by her husband, a diplomat who’d been assigned to track Iraq’s alleged uranium purchases, that he’d found no evidence. Though the war had far greater consequences than those faced by Plame, the film also speaks to the (often petty) lengths that government officials will go to in order to conceal secrets.
Oliver Stone’s presidential films should never (ever ever) be viewed as straight history, but rather as tone poems reflecting on the eras they cover, filtered through Stone’s unique (though not always astute) sensibilities. The sense of this one is Nixon as modern mythology, with a brilliant performance from Anthony Hopkins that captures the deviousness and vast insecurities that fuelled the President.
A frequently silly comedy about two big-hearted teen friends who are, perhaps, not the brightest (think a ‘70s-era Romy & Michele), Dick stars Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as deeply naive D.C. residents who become entangled in the events surrounding the Watergate break-in. At first enamoured with President Nixon (a perfectly cast Dan Hedaya), the two gradually come to realise that he’s not the well-meaning charmer that they’ve taken him for; their revenge is deeply satisfying. It’s often hilarious, but also serves as a pretty solid metaphor for the comedown that we face as a nation, and as individuals, when our political hopes are dashed, and our heroes are revealed as petty villains.
Ron Howard’s film isn’t about Watergate directly, but about its aftermath: it was decades before the full scope (or as close as we’ll ever get) of Richard Nixon’s paranoia, racism, anti-semitism, and criminality were known (though his contemporaries had good reason to suspect all of it). Ron Howard’s largely two-handed drama explores the moment when it all began to spill out; when what were intended as soft interviews with British journalist David Frost turned into confessionals, Nixon’s desire to boost his own ego, and then to unburden himself, leading to some genuinely shocking confessions.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t pack quite the punch the 1962 original, but Jonathan Demme’s 2004 Manchurian Candidate update adds some fascinating twists. Most resonant is the change in villain: the original dealt with the idea that Americans could be rather easily manipulated by the fear of communism in self-defeating ways; weakening ourselves in ways that invite attack from the outside. This version does something similar with multinational corporations. The performance from Denzel Washington is great, as is that from Meryl Streep; she plays Angela Lansbury’s scheming mother role as a U.S. Senator. Whether that represents genuine progress or just an update to an old trope is hard to say.
Inside Men (2015)
Korean filmmakers, in film and television, have had no trouble whatsoever with exploring both the excesses of capitalism nor government corruption — perhaps that’s part of the appeal to American audiences saddled with an increasingly status-quo friendly Disney/Marvel hegemony. Here, writer/director Woo Min-ho manages to mine action from the story of a rising Presidential candidate who only gets as far as he does because a conservative newspaper and its biggest sponsor want him in the top job. The corrupt connections between corporate media and political candidates are problems that are hardly limited to the Korean peninsula.