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My Top 5: Movie Political Assassinations


That was the cry of the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s also been the cry of anyone foreseeing a political downfall of any kind.

It’s interesting, then, that the Ides of March is actually a celebration of war. It’s a day to commemorate the God of War, Mars, complete with military parades.

Here are my five favorite films about political assassinations, real or imagined.

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by George Axelrod/George Frankenheimer (uncredited)
Based on a book by Richard Condon

The Manchurian Candidate is the grandaddy of all political conspiracy films. Frankenheimer’s film (and Condon’s novel) was, in a way, the soothsayer of the real world, telling us that a great assassination (JFK’s) would soon be considered one of the great conspiracies of all time.

Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra in one of his best roles) is a Korean War veteran with honors. Lately, he’s been plagued by crazy dreams that he finds out others from his platoon are also having. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), Marco’s sergeant, seems to be going even further down the rabbit hole of these dreams. But what happened in Korea stays in Korea…or did it follow them home. And what does Shaw’s horrible mother (Angela Lansbury) have to do with all of it?

Definitely one of the most paranoid films of all time, The Manchurian Candidate is a political thriller that shows us just how “in control” we really are…or how much others can control us.

Contrary to popular belief, the movie wasn’t pulled from theatres because of the JFK assassination, but JFK did help get it made when he personally called one of the producers on behalf of his friend Sinatra to tell him that it was ok to make the film. Nearly three decades later, Kennedy would get his own paranoid conspiracy theory movie…

JFK (1991)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Oliver Stone/Zachary Sklar
Based on books by Jim Garrison/Jim Marrs

If The Manchurian Candidate is the grandaddy of all political conspiracy films, JFK is the more modern daddy. It follows Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) as he tries to unravel the mystery behind the JFK assassination. He goes from government agent to military man to relative to figure out what the hell actually happened on that day in November.

At one time, Oliver Stone was a great filmmaker and this may well be his masterpiece. It’s an epic of paranoia and conspiracy with a cavalcade of stars. It very well could be just as much fiction as fact, but you would never know it from Stone’s absolute conviction that every bit of it is absolute truth and that Kennedy was killed by an army of people, not just one guy with a sick mind and something to prove.

Even before its release in 1991, the movie was immediately divisive. People will still debate whether the film is great or actually an amoral, anti-American piece of propaganda. Personally, I think it’s a great film that doubles as conspiracy theory propaganda. I’m not sure of what I believe about the assassination, but I believe the JFK is one of the best films of the 90s.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Written by Jeff Maguire

Speaking of the JFK assassination, In The Line Of Fire starts off with that fateful day. Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) was one of Kennedy’s secret servicemen and was completely unable to save the man. Now, 30 years later, he gets a call from Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a crazed ex-CIA assassin who is obsessed with Horrigan. He’s going to kill the president and he wants Horrigan to know it. Leary’s taunts get under his skin until he finally manages to get reassigned to protect the president (’cause they would totally take a man in his early 60s for that gig). Of course, no one believes him when he tells them about the plot.

In a way, this was the perfect movie for Eastwood at this point in his career. After a short stint of moderately popular, but critically drummed films (except for maybe White Hunter, Black Heart, which was exactly the opposite), Eastwood had just bounced back with Unforgiven. In The Line Of Fire was his chance to show that he still had the stamina to be an action star in the Dirty Harry mode. Not only that, but he got to play a truly haunted man. Horrigan has never gotten over the fact that he couldn’t save JFK and it informs his every move.

All of this is helped by the fact that Wolfgang Petersen knew his way around a taut action script.
Not nearly as conspiracy-based as the other films on this list, it is a great political assassination film that, while completely based in fantasy, is a really fun thriller.

Directed by Gabriel Range
Written by Gabriel Range/Simon Finch

JFK may have been more controversial, but that’s only because it was more popular and well-known. Death Of A President caused a HUGE uproar upon its release to film festivals around the world. Alternately called brilliant and absolutely irresponsible filmmaking, the film was just about as divisive as the president that inspired it.

The film is a mockumentary that is supposedly filmed years after the assassination of George W Bush. Of course, that assassination never happened, but what if it had? That’s what Range and Finch were out to discover. Not just what would happen in the world, but what would happen in politics. What would Cheney do to avenge his “boss”? Would we, the people, ever know the truth about what happened? Or would it be covered up?

The film was really only meant to play on British television, but it was shown at some festivals. Not long after that, it was entirely forgotten. That could have been because people just weren’t interested in it anymore (although the release was so small that many never even heard about it). But it also could have been because of the sea-change in the US. Not long after the film’s release, even Republicans started to turn on Bush. Suddenly, a movie about his assassination just didn’t matter anymore.

It’s an interesting film that really goes into the details of how corrupt everyone (especially outside of the US) thought/knew that the Bush administration really was. While it is probably the least of the films on this list, it may just be the one that will make you think the most.

Directed by Alan J Pakula
Written by David Giler/Lorenzo Semple, Jr/Robert Towne (uncredited)
Based on a book by Loren Singer

Alan J Pakula is another one of those “lost” directors of the 70s and 80s. Sure, he had his giant hits (All The President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice), but people don’t remember that he directed them. He also had a run of paranoid thrillers basically from the beginning of his career (Klute) to his last few films (The Pelican Brief). Sure, he was a bit of a hack, but he made some damn fine films along the way, even if he didn’t have much creative input beyond the actual direction.

The Parallax View is probably his most paranoid conspiracy films. It centers around Joseph Frady (Warren Beaty at the height of his powers), a reporter who just can’t stop investigating the assassination of a senator. He starts to think that maybe the Parallax Corporation could have had something to do with the assassination. He enrolls in their classes to find out exactly what’s going on. Just how far will he go for his story?

This is a movie that anyone with any interest in conspiracy theories or 70s cinema should see. I went through a phase when I was watching a LOT of 70s movies and this one really stuck out as one that a) no one really seemed to remember and b) people really should. Not only is it great, but it’s a prescient piece of filmmaking that shows us just how dangerous it can be for corporations to run a government, behind or in front of the scenes.

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