In turbulent political times, filmmakers and audiences often gravitate toward the conspiracy thriller genre, in which shadowy cabals pull the strings behind world events. I’d imagine you can expect a lot more of these coming soon. For now, here’s a look at some of our favorites from the past.
Although pretty much everything in it has been disproven (or at the least, never proven) in the years since its release, Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK‘ is still tops for me when it comes to conspiracy flicks.
Based on the book ‘On the Trail of the Assassins’ by Jim Garrison, Stone puts the controversial attorney (played by Kevin Costner) in the lead role, as he goes through all the evidence (and a literal who’s-who of Hollywood talent in supporting roles) trying to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) did not act alone… if he indeed acted at all.
Despite many of the theories in the movie not holding up in retrospect, and despite the film being over three hours long, it’s still a hell of a great watch and perhaps Stone’s best directed film.
‘Conspiracy Theory‘, starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, holds a special place in my heart. It was the first R-rated movie my parents watched and then approved of me seeing it too. I was also taken by conspiracy mumbo-jumbo when I was a lad, so the ideas of ever-present black helicopters and nefarious government agents seemed very real to me. Also, there’s that bonkers scene where Gibson gets to bite Patrick Stewart’s nose off.
M. Enois Duarte
The best conspiracy movie has got to be Brian De Palma’s crime thriller ‘Blow Out‘, where John Travolta plays a movie sound designer who accidentally records an assassination. Although Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’ and Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’ follow a similar plotline, what sets De Palma’s film apart is Travolta’s character as a working Joe caught up in a world of intrigue and corruption. He’s a regular guy in way over his head trying to solve a murder mystery organized by professionals, people who have no qualm with silencing others permanently. With cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond that gives the story a beautiful neo-noir look, the film is awesome and always entertaining.
The deeper we got into his career, the movies of Tony Scott became a little more wild. With erratically over-exposed film and hyper-editing, they started playing in the arena of Michael Bay. Before he got ‘Domino’-wild, he put out a great movie with a conspiracy plot that was both a mainstream hit and an unpredictable piece of storytelling. I’m talking about ‘Enemy of the State‘.
There may be a few exclamations of “Damn!” or “Hell no!”, but for me, this was the first Will Smith movie where I didn’t see him play just another version of the Fresh Prince. He was perfect for the part. Pairing his lawyer character with an off-the-grid conspiracy nut (Gene Hackman) created a classic buddy movie dynamic.
Paranoia political thrillers were anything but new at the time of its release (1998), but this was one of the first to use satellite surveillance to the extreme. At the time, it was pretty wild. Now, we don’t bat a lash at that sort of tech. However, ‘Enemy of the State’ still holds up. It’s just as entertaining to rewatch now as it was 19 years ago. It’s still intense, fun and enjoyable. For those who haven’t seen it, I’m sure the “How are they going to pull this off?” ending is just as fun and witty as when I saw it for the first time.
While I consider ‘All the President’s Men’ to be quintessential cinema, I’m going with a more fun Dustin Hoffman performance in ‘Wag the Dog‘. The conspiracy in the film is explicit and sardonic, but more importantly, how it will play out for all characters involved is quite evident to the audience. Within the comedy, one conspiracy film trope, that of the danger to those enacting or otherwise having knowledge of the conspiracy, is executed perfectly.
Produced between his two grandiose ‘Godfather’ epics, Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation‘ is a much smaller, quieter film about an audio surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) who’s hired to spy on the wife of a big company CEO in order to prove that she’s having an affair. In the process of reviewing and cleaning up the audio of a conversation he’s recorded, he discovers that there’s a lot more at stake behind this case than a simple matter of infidelity.
Created as Coppola’s homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’, the film similarly culminates in the devastating revelation that a subtle change in perception can lead to a massive change in meaning. It gets there by way of a riveting plot, a richly-drawn lead character, and a fantastic performance by Hackman.
What are some of your favorite conspiracy thrillers? Tell us in the Comments.