The Best Movie Ever: Conspiracies
It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. And with that massively paranoid remark we can define the whole conspiracy movie genre, in which shadowy groups set out to infiltrate, undermine and destroy our beloved institutions and societies from within. We’ve all had the anxious fantasy that people really are out to get us, and movies like this weekend’s release, The Gunman, aim to exploit those fears with drama and thrills.
But what’s The Best Conspiracy Movie Ever? We asked our three film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – to challenge their expertise, and each came up with only one film they think stands out as the high water mark of the whole conspiracy movie genre.
Find out what they picked, and keep coming back every Wednesday for more highly debatable installments of CraveOnline’s The Best Movie Ever!
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William Bibbiani’s Pick: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The idea of a political conspiracy was a little alien to Americans in the middle of the 20th Century, before Watergate drained all confidence in the government. The enemy was on the outside, across the Iron Curtain, and although “Red Scare” films were plentiful the idea was always that these were outsiders trying to break into America, not Americans trying to tear us down from the inside.
Into that landscape came John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, my pick for the best conspiracy movie ever. Frankenheimer’s film about terrifying assassination plot digs its nails into the petty political corruption of the Cold War era, in which a pair of American politicians schemed to manipulate their own son to commit attempted murder. But although the emotions are real – Laurence Harvey is the perfect patsy, and Angela Lansbury is one of cinema’s most twisted mothers – the plot is absurd, involving brainwashing techniques, bottles of ketchup and Frank Sinatra doing karate. (I’m still not sure how seriously any audience was ever supposed to take Frank Sinatra doing karate, but there’s so much demented humor in Frankenheimer’s film that I suspect it was always at least half a joke.)
The Manchurian Candidate was ahead of its time, capturing and presaging various American paranoias, and deftly combining satire and seriousness. The threat of Communism, at least as our politicians put it to us, was always a little unbelievable. Watching those threats play out on screen in all their ludicrous glory is a thrill and a lark. But beneath it all is a genuine fear that the people we trust really are out to get us, not just in typical every day betrayals, but as part of a mass scheme to make all of us their marks. Other films have captured that paranoia well, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any film do it better.
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Brian Formo’s Pick: Blow Out (1981)
Conspiracies hit the part of the mind that can easily lead to bombastic thought; so for the best conspiracy movie ever I’m going to choose the best film from one of our most bombastic directors: Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. In Blow Out De Palma’s patented camera tricks serve a purpose larger than an aesthetic cool: they spin. Just like the owl looking for prey, and just like anyone’s head will do once they start putting together pieces to corruption.
Jack Terry (John Travolta) used to work for the Philadelphia police department, but a wire he placed on an undercover policeman ended up burning the man when he began sweating, and the man lost his life. Now Jack’s a sound technician for an exploitation film company. One night when he’s out collecting sound samples on a bridge he records a tire blowing out, and a car crash into the water. He saves the girl (Nancy Allen) but in the hospital, government officials tell him there was no girl.
After listening to the tape ad nauseam, Jack tries to convince her to come forward with him: because this wasn’t an accident, it was an assassination of a political figure. She doesn’t see what the big deal is, the whole system is corrupt anyway, there’s nothing they can do to change it. But Jack is determined that his technological prowess can expose corruption.
De Palma takes the circumstantial witness of a murder in 1960s arthouse favorite Blow-Up (in that film a possible murder is caught in the corner of a fashion photographer’s photo reel) and blows it out from the individual guilt of one person to an entire nation that’s become so shaped by complacency, and cheap thrills, that everything is for sale. That might sound heady, but stay with me on my theory: in Blow Out, the Pennsylvania Governor was killed in a staged auto accident that was only supposed to be staged for a photograph of him and a call girl. The governor was the most likely to win the White House election of 1982, and the opposition bought cheap photos to knock him out. That alone is blood on their hands, but they got something even better for their bucks: an elimination. On the other side of commerce, the exploitation filmmakers who Jack works for trade in cheap thrills—nude bodies being carved up—and are having difficulty getting an authentic sounding scream. Jack is able to give them the a recording of an actual murder to make it perfect.
We expect more reality from our movies, even our horror movies, than we do from those that govern us. They lost us so long ago we just assume the whole thing is corrupt and live with it. As long as our movies seem realistic, we’re okay.
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Witney Seibold’s Pick: Inside Job (2010)
If we are healthy, and our minds are functioning properly, we’re probably paranoid about something. We observe the world around us – its politics, its government, its money, its taste – and we often begin to see odd patterns emerging. From there, it’s not an enormous leap of logic to suspect that someone – or something – far beyond your control, is manipulating those patterns. The best conspiracy thrillers tend to play into those paranoid fantasies, suggesting that your fears are justified, and that there really is a sinister organization at work. In The Manchurian Candidate, it revealed that the government really was in charge of brainwashing. In The X-Files, the government really was covering up aliens and weapons and God knows what else. In They Live, it’s explained that the real reason human beings seem so distracted and driven by consumption is that an alien intelligence needs a docile populace before they can stoop to conquer. How many of us haven’t suspected an malignant alien intelligence at work, controlling our consciousness?The Conversation is about a widespread fear of wire-tapping, and how someone might be listening to your every word. But that film is more a brilliant character study and a general sense of paranoia than a proper conspiracy thriller. And there’s always 1984, a film about Big Brother controlling the lives – and the minds – of an entire nation.
All of these are fantastic movies, and I recommend them all. But my selection for the best conspiracy movie of all time is going to go to a real-life conspiracy documentary about a conspiracy so insidious that it nearly ruined the country, brought the world to its knees, and yet did nothing to the people responsible. The powers that be were so strong, they managed to elude punishment. I refer to Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-winning 2010 film Inside Job.
In 2008, we all saw it happen. The bottom fell out of the housing market, and fell out so completely, that the ripples were felt all over the world. It was revealed that the ultra-rich were toying irresponsibly with land, that they were essentially setting things up for a big failure. Inside Job revealed that economic conspiracies do indeed exist, that the ultra-wealthy in this nation do carry out unethical deals on a daily basis in order to make themselves even richer, and that the wealthy, the intellectual elite, and the politicos of the nation all handily swap positions from time to time, just because they run in the same circles. It also revealed that the economies of the world are all more strongly interconnected. How is it that bad home loans in Texas can suddenly mean the collapse of Iceland’s economy? Money is the new conspiracy, and it’s too complex and too well-covered for even the smarted people to fathom. We live in a giant economic conspiracy, and there’s little we can do to escape. Shop local?