Political Thrillers: A Brief Outline
Despite claims that films nowadays are ‘too political’, the genre of political thrillers has been alive for decades and continues to entertain. For a political thriller to be good, it is important that it finds a realistic or allegorical plot; after all, it is not simply a thriller, but a political one. Political thrillers can speak to current circumstances, or to historical ones; they often address issues, concerns, and controversies we might not like to discuss.
But when does a thriller really become a ‘political thriller’? Thrillers that might involve social/economic/cultural issues aren’t necessarily political – consider for example police thrillers or dramas. Whether or not a film can be considered as a political thriller often depends on its structure and tone, how it paces itself, heightens suspense and plays with paranoia. A political thriller must deal primarily with a conflict of a political nature. Categorising massively popular thrillers such as Get Out or Parasite can be a real challenge; much of the discussion around those films focused on political issues, but they have rarely been termed ‘political thrillers’.
Perhaps the term ‘political thriller’ is old-fashioned, referring to a film trend that blew up in the past and then vanished, like many other Hollywood trends. Westerns, Historical Epics, Erotic Thrillers, Disaster movies, Slasher movies, and even Crime dramas and War movies used to be super popular before slowly disappearing into the background. Famously, all directors talk or complain about the superhero trend nowadays, arguing that it will one day disappear, due to ‘superhero fatigue’. Political thrillers too became incredibly popular at one point, hitting a boom of mass production, before audiences got tired. However, like all film genres, it quietly returned in different forms, mixing with other genres, becoming hybridized.
The genre of political thriller could most comfortably find its origins in the 40s-50s, in film noir. For what is more political than themes of corruption, of morally reprehensible protagonists (usually detectives), and the underbelly of crime in shady cities; cynical, nihilistic, sometimes bleak in tone. It reflects political anxieties about crime, about law enforcement, and an invisible threat, something which only grew in the Cold War context of the 1950s.
Film noir movies aren’t really considered political thrillers, but they built the foundations of the genre. The true masterclass of early political thrillers was created by John Frankenheimer; while his name is not very recognisable, he made a definitive impact on Hollywood with The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Very obviously a product of the Cold War, the plot is focused on a respectable marine who is kidnapped in the battlefields of the Korean War, brainwashed by Communists, and sent back home to assassinate a political figure. The title of the film has itself entered the common lexicon, used to refer to someone acting as a puppet to an overarching figure or organisation. The film played into anxieties about communist infiltration, present not just in the common man, but in prestigious political representatives; an idea especially recognisable from the McCarthyist era. Still, unlike later films, The Manchurian Candidate safely avoided criticising the U.S. government by pinning blame largely on communists and dumb politicians, rather than on intentional malice.
A less famous, but nonetheless fantastic political thriller by John Frankenheimer is Seven Days of May (1964). This film is about a suspected plot by a military general to perform a coup d’état overthrowing the president after he signs a disarmament pact with the Soviets. It’s a wonderful thriller which shows the inner workings of an attempted military coup and the investigation from the bottom up as the clock winds down and the president himself is in the dark about what to do. It’s one of the few films that considers what would happen if we had a coup in the West, a thought that to this day is dismissed, even though Germany barely avoided one last year, and the U.S. justifiably began to fear the possibility after the January 6 Capitol Attack. Another, more satirical and hard-hitting political thriller in the same vein was Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1962), which directly mocked the American military industrial complex and the nuclear arms race.
The 70s brought a huge explosion of political thrillers in Hollywood, largely thanks to the paranoia surrounding the Watergate scandal; these films are sometimes being referred to as ‘paranoia thrillers’. Some notable examples: Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation, The Day of the Jackal, Black Sunday, The Parallax View, The China Syndrome and Serpico. In particular, All the President’s Men was a near-biopic thriller that explored the investigation undertaken by the Washington Post into Watergate. An important distinction between All the President’s Men and a historical biopic is the way it ramps up the paranoia, using the thriller structure, rather than a film like The Post, which is dedicated to telling the story in a straightforward manner.
During the same period, a strange little sub-genre of political thrillers emerged, focusing on neo-nazis. Movies of this type are The Odessa File (1974), The Boys in Brazil (1978), and most famously, Dustin Hoffman’s hit, Marathon Man (1976). This sub-genre of course spoke to the fear that not only did many Nazis escape to South America, but they also continued to hold high-ranking political positions in Germany after the war. These movies got extremely paranoid; The Boys in Brazil (1978) tells the story of a bunch of former high-ranking Nazis living in Paraguay, including Dr. Mengele, infamous for his cruel experiments at Auschwitz. Their big plot is to create 90 identical clones of Hitler, who are then placed with families similar to Hitler’s. The Nazis even plan to kill the father of each clone at the same age Hitler’s father died. Their hope is that one day, these circumstances will create a new Adolf Hitler, somehow. It is an utterly insane premise but strangely enjoyable movie with legendary actors in it.
Political thrillers even began seeping into the sci-fi genre – such as The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which had overt political overtones – a trend that would continue in the 80s with Carpenters’ They Live. In the 80s and 90s, the trend of political thrillers largely died down. Still, in the 80s some truly masterful political thrillers were made which are still remembered as some of the best. Among them are Blow Out (1981) and No Way Out (1987), movies that were certainly helped by their stars John Travolta and Kevin Costner, respectively. Other examples include the Vietnam-veteran-paranoia plot, Cutter’s Way (1981), the police brutality-questioning Blue Thunder (1983), and the nuclear disarmament political assassination thriller The Package (1989).
In the 90s, the straight-forward political thrillers that did emerge were often unprofitable and sometimes muddled in message. For instance, Enemy of the State (1998) paired up Gene Hackman and Will Smith as framed fugitives from the government, In The Line of Fire (1993) and Absolute Power (1998) had Clint Eastwood as brandable star but had muted political themes, and JFK (1991) was as an utterly incomprehensible (and controversial) conspiracy rant about JFK’s assassination. One unique film to come out in this period was Wag the Dog (1997), whose plot revolved around the U.S. government faking a war with Albania just to cover up the scandal of a presidential affair before the elections. The film – starring Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman – is made especially entertaining by its black comedy satirical tone.
Over time, political thrillers were adapted into more marketable action flicks in order to soothe audiences. The Tom Clancy films Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) were decently entertaining, smartly written flicks with Harrison Ford as the lead. The Bourne franchise also loosely followed the themes of political thrillers, this time harking on the CIA conspiracy trope with Matt Damon as leading man. By the 2000s, most political thrillers focused either on real-world events or loose dramas.
Films like Munich (2005), Argo (2012), and The Insider (1999) are biopics that structurally and tonally mimic political thrillers and worked effectively to engage the audience as such. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is an extremely effective biopic of this manner, about the search for — and killing of — Osama Bin Laden, under extreme political pressure and often pushback from the American government. Most recently, Amsterdam (2022) could be considered a political thriller, but a botched, bizarre one at that, with poor direction and a naively muddled message about love at the end. I think the best example from the last decade is Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014). The movie takes the political thriller structure to heart, adapting it with great action beats, fantastic direction/editing, and a conspiracy plot that is entertainingly tense. It also stars Robert Redford, who has starred in quite a few political thrillers by now. Winter Soldier proves how effective genre-hybrids can be, with its invincible, morally incorruptible action superhero being completely undermined by the sinister political plot that formed right under his feet, destroying the ideals he strove for.
Whether or not you find that films are too ‘political’ nowadays, it’s clear that political thrillers have a fruitful future coming. As more voices are finally being given prominence in Hollywood, politics will undoubtedly become the centre of attention once again. Even if political thrillers do not return in the classic sense, there is place for them in hybridised forms, adapted across various genres.
By Romke van der Veen