What Political Thrillers of the ’60s Can Tell Us About 2017

We live in weird times. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you probably agree that the world has seen better days. Some people find a silver lining in the fact that great art is often born in the wake of perilous times — take the paranoid thrillers that followed Watergate, for example — but while we’re looking forward to that, we’d do well to look to the past to get a read on our future. There are some eerily prescient movies from the 1960s alone that work like gangbusters today. 

One example is The Intruder (1962), Roger Corman’s foray into socially conscious, “legitimate” filmmaking. Initially poorly received, The Intruder is a great film that, sadly, hasn’t aged poorly at all, depicting a smooth-talking con man who riles up a Southern town with anti-integration rhetoric that teeters on the edge of blatantly telling them to lynch black folks, all so he can get off on the power trip. Sound familiar?

It’s stunning to see how this film mirrors our current society, with people swearing they’re not bound to old social constructs and becoming enraged at the mere thought of “other” people suddenly being on their level. We also get William Shatner giving a deliciously great performance as the con man, a role that seemingly inspired Trump’s bad-community-theater-level performance of “white savior.”

Another relevant example is Seven Days in May (1964), from director John Frankenheimer (whose more iconic political film will be addressed next). Seven Days depicts an attempted presidential coup by a military general (Burt Lancaster) who feels the president is too weak with Russia in regards to their nuclear disarmament deal — reminiscent of the GOP’s railing against Obama’s similar deal with Iran during the campaign. The media-savvy general plans to manipulate the press as the centerpiece of his coup; imagine how much easier it would be if 24-hour news networks were around to give him an unfiltered platform. Most astonishing is the film’s final speech, written by Rod Serling, where the president assures the American people after the failed coup that the general, misguided though he was, merely wanted to “make America great again.”

Frankenheimer’s most famous movie has been explicitly brought up in this election cycle: The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Which isn’t to say that people think we’re living in a sci-fi parable, but rather that Russia’s involvement is too similar to be ignored. Whereas Raymond Shaw is controlled by the commies to further his mother’s political ambitions, Trump is believed to be in Russia’s grip thanks to his “business savvy.” There’s also the looming specter of family, driving him to constantly seek approval he never got from Fred Trump. While Fred himself may not have been the Russian middleman that Shaw’s mother was, he is responsible for making Trump vulnerable to the allure of admiration at the cost of morality or common sense.

These films give us a glimpse of the worries of the times — the racial divide; Russian paranoia — which it turns out are also the worries of today. The ‘60s had their own race-baiting, populist madman in Barry Goldwater. Hell, The Intruder predicted George Wallace and how he’d be gunned down in a crowd, although the movie was more a symbolic gunning down. Paranoia ruled the day. Is it any wonder these movies hold up so well?

Maybe it’s the conventions of the day demanding it, but it’s worth noting that all three films have happy endings thanks to people’s steadfast dedication to the truth. The Intruder has Shatner being revealed as a fraud and an opportunistic madman, left alone and humiliated as the town comes unshackled from his influence, all because the one man who knows the truth walks into the middle of a lynch mob to proclaim it. Seven Days in May has the power-hungry general defeated after the president and other politicians conduct a covert investigation of him. The Manchurian Candidate has the assassination attempt go belly-up when Shaw’s conditioning short-circuits thanks to the Frank Sinatra character forcing the truth into him. In a time where fake news is spreading like wildfire and real journalism is being dismissed as heresy, these resolutions are all the more powerful.

Tom Lorenzo lives in Long Island. Or is it on Long Island?  Anyway, he lives there.

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