5 Ways Political Thrillers Like “The Report” Are So Palpable
As the world seems increasingly fraught with danger, and Washington D.C. traffics in partisan battles day in and day out, it’s not surprising to see that political thrillers have been coming back in vogue. Argo, Bridge of Spies, and even Captain America: The Winter Soldier… they’re all political thrillers in their own way. If you’re a fan of the sub-genre, you’ve probably noticed that such films tend to have their own unique set of tropes. They subscribe to many of the same conventions as regular thrillers, but in other critical ways, they are entirely their own animal.
One notable attribute, on display in the current political thriller The Report, is an explicit commentary on our modern world. Specifically, the new film starring Adam Driver as an investigator exposing the torture doctrine of the George W. Bush administration is not only intended to play as an exciting yarn but as a searing editorial condemning government overreach. The filmmakers clearly want the audience to feel “woke” as the final credits roll and in turn, be savvier citizens. In the old days, such films were often called “message movies” and indeed, political thrillers generally give audiences a lot to chew over. They’re as intellectual as they are visceral.
Palpable tension combined with food for thought can be found in all kinds of superb political thrillers from the last half a century in various countries, though they seem to be a predominately American mainstay. Perhaps because our freedom of the press has uncovered plenty to be paranoid about over that time. No matter, films like The Manchurian Candidate, Z, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, JFK, The Ides of March, The Secret in Their Eyes, and The Ghost Writer may be from different countries, and explore politics in different settings, but they have a great deal in common.
In fact, there are five distinct characteristics at play in most political thrillers designed to both excite and unnerve the viewer”
1) The hero is apolitical but won’t be for long
In political thrillers, the hero almost always starts out as a clean slate, an outsider drawn into the world of the powerful. Once inside the inner sanctum, he/she will discover a nefarious plot, one that not only breaks the law, but likely threatens the nation too. By the end of the story, this apolitical, objective, and analytical hero will become a wholly invested “freedom fighter,” risking his or her life to set the truth free.
In Scott Z. Burns’ The Report, that investigating character is Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), the real-life aid to Senator Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening) during the Bush and Obama administrations. In the beginning, Jones is levelheaded and calm, as pragmatic as the small team of investigators he leads assigned to look into rumors of illegal torture.
But as Jones’ team uncovers more and more shocking truths about our nation’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ being practiced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his blood starts to boil.
Jones is horrified by the CIA’s inhumane practices, not to mention the plethora of government officials greenlighting such practices. In turn, his rabble-rousing starts to step on the wrong toes and soon his investigation, and indeed, his very life, is in danger. His faith in the system and even Feinstein is challenged. It’s scary and more than a little heartbreaking too. And Jones’ awakening to the truth makes for a great character arc in the story.
2) The stakes are society’s laws
And what’s at stake as Jones pursues his investigation in The Report? Why, nothing less than the Constitution of the United States of America, of course. If a political thriller is doing its job, the very nation and its laws should be hanging in the balance.
In Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men, the investigation into the Watergate Hotel break-in, spearheaded by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), leads to the Oval Office and those working directly for President Richard Nixon. Truer “David v. Goliath” stories are hard to come by as the film showcases these two ordinary men fighting extraordinary powers.
In the end, Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Nixon administration’s wholesale corruption, forcing the POTUS to resign in disgrace. Their work helped protect America from a leader who had grown brazen in his disregard for the laws of the nation, and the film of their adventures made for one of the 1970s’ very best films.
3) The supporting players are not to be trusted
One of the best parts of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) was the way the story suggested that almost everyone that writer Ewan McGregor encountered in the film might have sinister, ulterior motives. The story concerns his attempts to ghostwrite the memoirs of a shady British Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan, but the job ends up becoming one that threatens his very life. The previous writer died mysteriously, and the more McGregor uncovers, the more it looks he might be next. Who doesn’t want the PM’s story to come out?
For his serpentine plot, director Polanski cleverly cast actors in the supporting parts who brought a serpent-like danger to their roles. Kim Cattrall, who played the PM’s top aide, was widely known for her amoral Samantha role from Sex and the City and made for an instantly viable suspect. Olivia Williams, cast as the PM’s wife, played as many villains as ingenues in her career. Even Jon Bernthal, cast as the literary agent of McGregor’s character, suggested oily untrustworthiness, enhanced by his dark eyes and tough mug. Such shrewd casting helped all of them seem suspicious, even if most of them were nothing more than red herrings.
4) A whistleblower will solve the puzzle
Oliver Stone’s 1991 political thriller JFK tells the story of how New Orleans DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) tried to prove that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. He tries to connect the CIA, the Mob, Cuban sympathizers, Dallas businessman Clay Shaw, and strip club proprietor Jack Ruby to the crime but has a great deal of difficulty proving his suspicions. In the third act, a whistleblower contacts him and all the pieces start to fall into place. Almost every political thriller contains such a character and such “A-ha” moments.
In JFK, that whistleblower is an ex-CIA operative dubbed “Mr. X.” He’s played by Donald Sutherland, and in one of the movie world’s most disturbing monologues, X proceeds to lay out precisely how all those parties came together to doom the 35th President of the United States. In reality, Garrison never met CIA operative Fletcher Prouty, the man X is based on, until years after losing his case. Worse yet, much of Prouty’s story has holes in it. Still, despite all that, Stone’s film reiterated most Americans’ belief that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a “lone nut gunman,” and definitively employed the whistleblower trope to great effect.
The same kind of thing happens in the third act of Clear and Present Danger, The Constant Gardener, Syriana, and many other political thrillers. In such stories, the hero is short on allies and the whistleblower comes along usually when all is lost. Such a device ensures a crackling third act that closes any loopholes in the storytelling and justifies all the craziness that the protagonist has had to suffer through to get his story.
5) Political thrillers rarely end happily
Despite fighting the good fight, the lead characters in most political thrillers do not win. And if they do prevail, their victory tends to be a qualified one. In Costa-Gavras’ Algerian-French political thriller Z (1969), the investigating magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) indicts two militants and four high-ranking military officers responsible or the murder of a Greek pacifist yet is removed from his post while the conspirators are given light sentences.
At the end of Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1973), CIA operative (Robert Redford) exposes the bad guys in the story he’s just handed to the New York Times, but he must go on the lam and cannot be sure that the Times will even publish it. Worse yet, in Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), intrepid reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) proves that a conspiracy was behind the assassination of a presidential candidate, but all his evidence is destroyed, and all witnesses killed. parties killed. Frady is even framed for some of the murders, after being killed himself. No good deed goes unpunished in most political thrillers.
Some may resist political thrillers due to their savaging of this political affiliation or that, or because such films generally avert a “happy ending,” but that’s like disliking Shakespeare for all the bloodletting or Marvel movies for bringing back dead characters through time travel. Drama is drama and exciting cinema is exciting cinema, right?
Political thrillers not only stimulate an audiences’ nerve endings but their frontal lobes as well. Such fare might even inspire viewers to get more involved in their world and try to make a difference. An entertaining movie that also serves as a “call to action?” Sounds like a win-win, no?
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