Hollywood's Ten Best Political Thrillers

American Politics has often served as a realm for angry minds. Paranoia has been an important factor. That word has evoked a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and fantasies of conspiracy. For young minds, its political history looks both disgraceful and uplifting. You could witness principled leadership and selfless sacrifice as well as corruption and sex scandals. Hollywood has always been captivated by its country’s politics and the conspiracy theories. Political Thrillers often considered a sub-genre of drama and action mixes both the selflessness and the subversion, where the thrill doesn’t come from guns, but from the psychological tension. Let’s recap some of the intelligent and superbly detailed American political thrillers. If I have missed out any films that belong to this list, please mention it in the comments section.

Argo (2012)

Ben Affleck’s upscale political thriller chronicles the astounding true story of an improbable rescue mission during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Affleck plays the protagonist Tony Mendez, who cooks up a scheme to get the Americans out of Iran before they are found out by posing as the producer of a fake Canadian sci-fi movie called “Argo.” The down-played roles of Canadian embassy people; the heavy CIA propaganda; and the obvious use of dramatic license in the finale are the flip side to this movie, but still it’s a well-told story without any of those big and flashy ‘proud-to-be-American’ dialogues. 

V for Vendetta (2006)

‘Matrix’ fame Wachowski’s adapted Alan Moore’s graphic novel for this visually grand political allegory. The story is set in the near future (2020), in London, which is under the control of a fascist dictator Adam Sutler. A mysterious masked vigilante ‘V’ unleashes a blood feud, which inspires the masses to rise against the totalitarian government. This is an inspiring political movie because it calls to arms not those with weapons, but those with voices. It blends provocative thoughts with Hollywood style action set-pieces. And, above all, it imparts us with a feeling that any person in the world –poor or rich – has the power to question and change things. 

Syriana (2005)

Based on the novel by Robert Baer, “Syriana’s” political factor is oil in the Persian Gulf. The thriller swirls through five different narratives that interplay one another in the most unexpected ways. It takes a look at how the ambition of few unscrupulous people destroys the fate of numerous humans. George Clooney’s image-shedding performance as an ex-CIA agent is the best of the lot. The political viewpoint expressed in the film poses many stark questions that are most often avoided in Hollywood movies. It also offers inescapable geographical facts and hard truths that most politicians want to shield us from. 

Munich (2005)

Steven Spielberg’s engrossing political game demonstrates the vicious cycle of terrorism in the aftermath of the assassination of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, in 1972 Munich Olympics. ‘Based on real events’ movies often leave out the moral ambiguousness and only achieves self-righteousness. This film, on the other hand, shows toil and degeneration of all characters involved. It helps us to understand both the parties – Israel and Palestine – and why they do these horrific acts? Flawless acting, impeccable direction and fascinating cinematography are the other reasons to watch this movie.

 JFK (1991)

Oliver Stone’s investigative thriller was so controversial, since it provided carefully constructed conspiracy theories to make people believe that the US government or mafia or the Cuban exiles were behind the assassination of John Kennedy. The film revolves around District Attorney Jim Garrison, whose investigation of JFK’s assassination takes us through the entangled world of US cold war politics. Apart from rising big questions, Oliver Stone also introduced ground-breaking technicalities that later revived everything from TV ads to action movies.

All the President's Men (1976)

Alan Pakula’s real-life David-Goliath story chronicles the experiences of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in uncovering the Water-Gate scandal. The film came from an era, when investigative journalism meant something and also brought up some thorny questions, for which the answers are still hard to find, even in the WikiLeaks and Snowden era. Those who are aware of Water Gate scandal may know the end, but thanks to low-key performances from Redford and Dustin Hoffman, the movie is gripping throughout the finale.

The Parallax View (1974)

Based upon a novel, this Alan Pakula film captured the mood of political unease after the Water Gate scandal. The protagonist Joseph Grady (played by Warren Betty) is an investigative journalist, who doubts that the assassination of a senator involves a secret security organization, which intentionally seeks out social misfits to murder its targets. The political distrust and self-scrutiny in US politics during the 1970’s is realistically and provocatively depicted in this film. Although it received a lukewarm response upon its release, its paranoid politics has since then attracted many viewers. The ending confirms the fact that this film doesn’t resort to cliches. 

Seven Days in May (1964)

This paranoid political thriller shot after the assassination of JFK showcases a military plot to overthrow the US government. It shows what happens when an unscrupulous politician or military man feels that democracy is no longer worth defending. Whom do we judge as a true patriot? A strong, misguided military man? Or a feeble, ideological civilian authority? It stands upon the essential merits of story-telling with complete conviction. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster’s contrary roles are a treat to watch. 

Fail-Safe (1964)

Have you watched Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”?  It dealt with the theme of accidental nulear warfare in a hugly funny saritical manner.  Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe has more or less the same story, but is a more tense-filled, suspenseful piece of film-making with frightening implications.  The cast is lead by gifted thespians like Henry Fonda (as the President of USA), Walter Matthau. The film might make you to reflect on the possibility of a technology that is progressing faster than we can control it. It  is considered best for its psychological thrills, the vivid portrayal of an bleak, imaginary situation.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, John Frankenheimer’s uncanny political thriller centers its narrative on an American unit of war heroes who have been brainwashed by Chinese and Russian military. The high-spirited Frank Sinatra played a nuanced titular role of Captain Marco. The plot might seem to be bashing communism, but it also presents a critical view of American politicians and military men. Considered to be way ahead of its time, it opened a political window of previously unencountered issues such as conspiracy theories and indoctrination. It remains remarkably effective even after five decades.


Paresh Kale said...

Argo ???????

Anonymous said...

Thats a good list to get started with! Would 'Day of the Jackal' also fall under this genre ?

Arun Kumar said...

@ Paresh Kale, What does the question mark mean -- Argo is not a political thriller or Argo doesn't deserve to be in this list?

@themoonstone, Thank you. Although 'Day of the Jackal's' assassin target is Charles De Gaulle, there is very little politics in it.

FolkTalesUrbanLegends said...

Good list Arun. I really like talky political thrillers. There are some movies here that I haven't heard like Fail-safe and Seven Days in May. I recently watched Ides of March and State of Play, both of which I consider to be some of the best of 00's political thrillers.

Arun Kumar said...

@ Sandeep, thanks for the comment. Ides of March and State of Play were also the notable movies of this genre. I am also preparing a list of best political dramas.

helena said...

Six months before the election, the Republicans were losing in the polls, which would give Jim Carter a second term. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush made overtures to the Ayatollahs holding the American hostages in Iran.
Political Thrillers & Suspense

helena said...

Why would American imprison, hold indefinitely and torture prisoners? Sound insane. Oh But it’s not. It is a very thought out, methodical plan. You see, the government is not run by the president. It is run by the corporations that..
Humanitarian causes

gaurav said...

Judgement at Nuremburg