The 15 Best Political Thrillers of All Time
8. Blow Out (1981)
They don’t make them like this anymore. Literally. Watching the old school audio technology used in this film actually is one of the highlights of this movie: that and the conspiracy to murder a former governor who was on track to be the next President of the United States.
The mean streets of Philadelphia are the star of this thriller along side John Travolta (Jack) and Nancy Allen (Sally). Jack is on the search for a scream queen for a horror movie he’s shooting. He is the master recorder for a B-movie studio.
While out recording sound for the film, he witnesses a tragic car accident. Jack is able to save Sally who does not remember what happened. Officials seem hell bent on writing it off as an accident but the audio Jack manages to record indicates that something more sinister is at play.
Throughout Brian de Palma’s oeuvre, he not only examined crime, murder, and sex but he did a great job looking at the complex relationships between characters and some of the choices that they make. The repeated themes of the liberty bell and red, white, and blue imagery almost seem like subtle little digs at America in this film. This little lesser known gem is one of de Palma’s best.
7. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
No political thriller list would be complete without a Hitchcock (Sabotage) film. Fans of James Stewart may already hold this film in high esteem even though Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life may be some of his more popular fare. Hitchcock was approaching his peak at this point and even though this is a remake, it is well worth the watch.
Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and his wife Jo McKenna (Doris Day) travel to Paris for a medical conference along with their young son, Hank. They decide to do some more traveling and go to French Morocco where a stranger they met earlier in France has been stabbed. Before he dies, he whispers to Ben about an assassination attempt in London. To complicate matters, Hank is kidnapped during the fracas.
Hitchcock is an absolute master of building suspense and tension and does not disappoint here. This version is longer than the original so it gives the viewer time to connect to the family emotionally. The agony and suffering of a couple experiencing a missing child is more pronounced. This thriller is complex without being cold and fine performances by Stewart and Day give it the perfect touch.
6. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
More themes of distrust and paranoia abound in this fast paced thriller directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford (Turner aka Condor). Turner works for the American Literary Historical Society. In reality, it’s a front for the CIA where they read foreign books and documents that might contain secret messages and codes.
Turner is smart but very sincere for a CIA operative. He is bookish and amicable. The dialogue is very light and easy in the opening scenes of the film. This light airiness does not last long after Turner comes back from lunch to find all of his colleagues murdered. He calls the CIA to bring him in only to survive a murder attempt. Every decision Turner makes from here on out needs to be a calculated one as the wrong decision could cost him his life.
One thing that is so heartbreaking to an extent about this film is the degree of earnestness that Robert Redford brings to his character. Turner is like the Americans of yore, trusting and innocent, having absolute faith in all American institutions only to find that the ones who have betrayed him are the ones he trusted the most. Turner is running for his life. Where? Who knows? Hopefully to a place where things are what they seem and he can place his trust in something that won’t let him down.
5. The Day of the Jackal (1973)
One of the reasons the 1970s was the last great decade in the Golden Age of Film is because filmmakers trusted their actors to tell the story. The pacing, editing, and screenplays came together to create cinematic masterpieces that audiences could really appreciate. The Day of the Jackal is a good example of how these things come together to tell a brilliant story with little dialogue or exposition.
In 1962, Colonel Charles de Gaulle, the French President has given Algeria its independence. This angers some of the remaining former members of the French Foreign Legion who have gone on to form an underground group referred to as OAS. They make failed attempts on de Gaulle’s life and subsequently, his security becomes impenetrable. In a last ditch effort to assassinate the president; they hire the world’s stealthiest assassin, The Jackal.
This really is a fun film to watch. Looking at The Jackal prepare for his assignment and the meticulous attention to detail and sparse dialogue make this one of the more tense political thrillers of its time. The plot is rich and as it unfolds, viewers will have witnessed one of the finer murder for hire films to date. It’s adapted from the Forsyth novel and history buffs will enjoy that the story is based on some factual information.
4. The Parallax View (1974)
Here is another film by Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice) that really show’s off his skills as a director/producer. Warren Beatty is remarkably cast as reporter Joseph Frady. Frady is among a group of several reporters who are present when State Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce) is assassinated in the Seattle Space Needle.
Later, a colleague approaches him because several of the reporters that witnessed the assassination are dying under odd circumstances. Frady’s investigation leads him to the Parallax Corporation whose mission and training tactics are on the edge of what we’d call ethical.
Alan J. Pakula creates an atmospheric masterpiece with this film. Watching the maelstrom of paranoia and indoctrination is fascinating. There is a scene depicting one of Parallax’s brainwashing devices that draws it’s viewer into the film in a way where he or she may walk away feeling they have actually been reprogrammed. Not since A Clockwork Orange has there ever been a sequence so powerful. It may be even more so as Pakula never lets up and has the viewer see Frady’s reaction.
What really makes The Parallax View so special is the way Pakula goes beyond capturing the paranoia of the characters in the film, but also the paranoia gripping the nation during this tumultuous time in history. There are consequences to stepping out of line and disrupting the order of things. This film documents the kind of controlled chaos that ensues when people in high places are manipulating events and outcomes while being hidden in plain sight.
3. The Conversation (1974)
Who would have thought in 1974, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation could predict the hyper intelligence gathering, invasion of privacy world that we now inhabit? Citizen Four is a testament to exactly how far politicians have gone to ensure their ability to monitor communications. In this age of GPS and ever increasing surveillance technologies, it is interesting to watch it being done the old fashioned way.
Gene Hackman stars as Henry Caul, a surveillance expert who has his own private operation out of San Francisco. He is a heavily guarded and suspicious man who lives in a spartan apartment that contains no telephone. He excels at what he does but is deficient in interpersonal interactions. While Caul feels he has no responsibility in the ways in which his wire taps and recordings are used, he is wracked with Catholic guilt over a past wiretap that had tragic results.
John Cazale plays Stan, Caul’s colleague who assists him in monitoring a conversation that takes place between Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest as they stroll through Union Square in San Francisco.
This is one of the best scenes in the film as the action is caught from several different camera angles as the audio of the conversation moves forward. The conversation between the couple is muddled by the din of chatter because of passerby in Union Square, but Caul uses his skills at filtering and processing the audio to make the conversation clear. Or so he thinks.
Gene Hackman gives a stripped down, bare bones performance here and it is superb. You watch his slow descent into despair as he is sucked deeper into a conspiracy. This movie had a heavy influence on Enemy of the State to the degree that some see it as an extension of Caul himself. Enemy of the State is more action packed and moves at a much faster pace. It is the slow, tenuous pacing, and brilliant reveal that make this an amazing film, probably one of Hackman’s finest.
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Don’t settle for the remake of this tense political thriller. This film is one of several greats by John Frankenheimer (Seconds, Seven Days in May). It is also one of the more influential movies that led to some of the better political thrillers of the 1970s.
After returning back to the United States after the Korean War, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) wins the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of his fellow soldiers in combat. Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and the rest of his platoon have nothing but good things to say about Sergeant Shaw.
Why is it then, that Marco and another member of his platoon are having a similar reoccurring dream that Shaw is systematically killing his fellow soldiers in front of communist military officials? Marco knows this cannot be a coincidence and feels that there may be something afoot with some of the brainwashing techniques employed by the military.
This film examines several social issues such as class, sex, and explores the psychosexual mores of having a domineering mother (Angela Lansbury) and weaker father figure. This film is one of Frankenheimer’s stronger efforts but may not be as appreciated as his other works. Angela Lansbury steals every scene she is in as this film builds to its shocking conclusion.
1. All the President’s Men (1976)
This film is ostensibly one of the best political thrillers of all time. One of the most compelling reasons for its success is because it’s based on the illegal activities of the Nixon Administration.
Fact is indeed stranger than fiction as Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein uncover a break-in at the Democratic Party National Headquarters. After some sleuthing, and cloak-and-dagger style correspondence with the now infamous “Deep Throat”, both reporters discover one of the biggest political conspiracies of the day leading all the way to the White House.
Next to the Kennedy assassination, Watergate can be pinpointed as a time when America began to lose even more of its innocence. These institutions in which so many people had placed their faith were beginning to crumble.
It should also be noted that this time there was a mutual distrust amongst the media and the Nixon Administration because of some residual issues from the Vietnam War. Robert Redford is perfectly cast in this role as the stalwart and forthright Woodward. Who better to play this role than someone of Robert Redford’s ilk, given the historical period and his own personal politics?
Both Robert Redford (Woodward) and Dustin Hoffmann (Bernstein) give standout performances in this film. This is arguably one of Hoffmann’s more subtle performances that he has given in his career. He did go on to win Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man, but probable should have taken home a gold statue for this role as well. Even though viewers know how this movie ends, the tension and pacing that it presents keeps them on edge, especially the scenes with Hal Holbrook (Deep Throat).
Author Bio: Edwanike Harbour has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid film buff and currently writes for Madison Film Forum. When she’s not in front of a movie screen, she is usually listening to indie rock and reading Don Delillo novels.
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