A guide to Hollywood's greatest conspiracy movies
Last weekend saw the release of Mark Felt, a new procedural thriller starring Liam Neeson as Deep Throat, the famous source who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the full extent of the Watergate scandal. A.O. Scott of the New York Times describes the movie as “a hectic, intermittently intriguing and accidentally timely procedural thriller” that also happens to be “a tough slog.”
Mark Felt is also far from the first Hollywood film to dramatize the Watergate story, much less the nationwide miasma of confusion and paranoia that resulted from it. This is an interesting moment in American history to be looking back at the post-Watergate era. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s ongoing inquiry into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia certainly feels similar to the Nixon investigations, and the nationwide crisis over politics and the future resembles those heady ’70s days. If you’re looking for insight as to how America got here and how we’ve handled it before, look no further than these great paranoid conspiracy movies.
All the President’s Men
The movie that first made Deep Throat famous features Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Together, they convey both the tenacity of hard-nosed reporting and the devastation of learning that your government is not what you thought it was. Hal Holbrook’s version of Deep Throat/Mark Felt appears here mostly as a pair of eyes shining in the moonlight across a shadowy parking garage, a revelatory ray pointing the way toward the dark truths of American politics. But though the Nixonian conspiracy uncovered by Woodward and Bernstein is terrifying, this movie also conveys the joy of actually solving such an arcane puzzle. Here, Woodward and Bernstein’s diligent work ultimately results in Nixon’s resignation. That sense of fulfillment is missing from the other movies on this list.
The Parallax View
The second film in director Alan J. Pakula’s so-called “paranoia trilogy” is even more twisted than its successor, All the President’s Men. The protagonist here is also a reporter (Warren Beatty’s Joe Frady), but his investigation centers around the mysterious Parallax Corporation, which apparently produces assassins to kill any politician who threatens the establishment. The details of this conspiracy have less to do with Watergate and instead take cues from the political assassinations that rocked America in the late ’60s and ’70s, including Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., but The Parallax View is nevertheless rooted in the post-Watergate feeling that society was besieged by sinister forces of some kind. The most mind-bending sequence of all comes when Frady infiltrates Parallax’s orientation process and gets subjected to a brainwashing film that conflates words like “mother,” “country,” and “God” with corresponding images from the American mythos — until they all start mashing together in one horrifying spectacle. The unsettling confusion should be familiar to anyone who uses the internet.
Three Days of the Condor
Many conspiracy movies pit scrappy lone-wolf heroes against some corrupt and incomprehensible organization. Robert Redford’s Joseph Turner, by contrast, starts out as a member of the CIA — at least until his co-workers are suddenly wiped out and his bosses try to kill him too. Fighting your way out of an organization you didn’t fully understand before is a theme that would be picked up decades later by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which also starred Redford — albeit now with his role reversed, changed from heroic rebel to authoritarian mastermind. Maybe that was the message all along.
Watergate has been invoked so many times in the years since that it’s sometimes easy to forget how the whole thing started: with a Republican attempt to bug and record Democratic national headquarters. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece digs deep at the idea of what it means to spy on another person, and how notions of privacy and intimacy get distorted in a world where anyone could record you. The famous final scene, in which a paranoid Gene Hackman destroys his apartment searching for the kind of bugs he spent his life planting on other people, is a good metaphor for struggling to escape our modern surveillance state.