Welcome to Season 3 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast about Hollywood and history.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
Lia, try this thought experiment on for size. I know it’s hard, but can you imagine living in a society that is ostensibly a democracy but secret forces are working behind the scenes to manipulate events? What if, and hear me out, our intelligence agencies are off the hook and basically do what they like with little or no oversight? What if the president is a criminal and would do anything to stay in power? What if politicians are assasinated not by lone, crazed gunmen but by political enemies or corporate interests? It’s really hard to fathom, right???
I detect a bit of sarcasm, and rightfully so! Anyone living in America the last few decades will basically accept this scenario as a matter of course. What else is new? But there was a time when revelations of government misdeeds, and horror of horrors, a dishonest president was deeply disturbing. By the early 1970s I think most Americans were pretty cynical and conditioned to believe we’d been lied to about Vietnam. We explored the legacy of the war in another episode, but Watergate and stunning exposes into CIA misdeeds since the beginning of the Cold War took things to a whole new level. And, like we’ve done all season – Hollywood took notice and reflected this anxiety and outrage in a bunch of political thrillers.
That’s definitely true, and I love this era of Hollywood in general, but I’m drawn to the films we’re talking about today. We had a lot to choose from, but we decided on, in chronological order, The Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula, Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack (who also directed Redford in The Way We Were), and finally, the classic docudrama very much based on real events, All the Presidents Men, also directed by Pakula. These films were all released between 1974 and 1976 and it is clear our two directors are capitalizing on the zeitgeist, and that includes leaving audiences without much hope in the end. Our nice white guy protagonists, if they survive, or win Pulitzers, probably can’t change anything. How very 1970s.
The films take direct aim at our institutions and find them wanting, or more accurately, the entire infrastructure of society – corporations, presidents, the CIA, you name it. And it goes back to the unfettered growth of executive power and the national security state going back to where we started the season – Containment, the National Security Act of 1947, NSC-68. Everything we built to fight the Cold War went off and did its own thing. This expansive Cold War bureaucracy serves itself.
We’ve been talking about certain foundational documents or spectacles like you just mentioned, and the ones that matter most for this batch of films include the Watergate Hearings and the so-called Church committee, named for Senator Frank Church, Democrat from Idaho. It was formerly known as the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. 1975 was called the “Year of Intelligence” because this committee along with the Pike Committee in the House and the Rockefeller Commission unearthed decades of abuse by the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the IRS. These public hearings are why we have the permanent select committees in Congress today.
So, how do we characterize lies agreed upon about films that are themselves about lies and liars working in the shadows? Are the lies what our filmmakers expose, or do these mostly fictional plots contribute to a false consciousness? It’s a little of both.
Our first lie agreed upon is exactly what you just said, the Cold War Leviathan has undermined our democracy, essentially turning politics into a shadow play in which the winners and losers are predetermined. These three films make it seem like you shouldn’t even bother trying.
The second lie applies to each film, but especially The Parallax View and All The Presidents Men. That’s the power of journalism, something we covered in our first season. Intrepid journalists can break through the matrix so to speak and see the inner workings of the big lies, the deception. Can they though? And, at least in today’s environment, how do you tell the difference between a journalist and a political operative?
Before we tackle the lies, let’s do some recaps of some films you probably saw way back when, but you could use a refresher.
Alan Pakula’s 1974 film The Parallax View is based on the novel by Loren Singer and stars Warren Beatty as journalist Joe Frady and a bunch of great character actors you might recognize, including Paula Prentiss. She did Where The Boys Are and Catch 22; William Daniels, whom we had the pleasure of discussing last season as John Adams in 1776; and Hume Cronyn, who was already a pretty old actor with a ton of credits before this. He was married to Jessica Tandy and starred with her in Cocoon, if you remember. But, this is a Warren Beatty vehicle, teamed up with a great director, which has always been his key to success. We know he’s a pretty good director himself. Alan Pakula directed To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962 and went on to two more classics, All The Presidents Men in 1976 and Sophie’s Choice in 1982. He won best adapted screenplay for that.
The story begins with a memorable assassination scene atop the Space Needle in Seattle. TV journalist Lee Carter witnesses presidential candidate Charles Carrol gunned down by a waiter who then falls to his death. A second waiter leaves the scene unnoticed. A committee (I assume Congress) decides the killing was the work of a lone assassin. Three years later, Carter visits her ex-boyfriend, a kind of rakish small time Oregon newspaper reporter named Joe Frady. She claims others must have been behind the Carrol assassination because six of the witnesses to the killing died and she fears she will be next. Frady does not take her seriously, however, Carter is soon found dead of a drug overdose.
Guilty about Lee’s death, Joe pursues the investigation and discovers a connection to the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Lots of good journalistic detective work here, but suffice to say, Joe learns they recruit and train assassins. Joe tries to convince his skeptical newspaper editor Bill Rintels he is on to a big story, connecting the dots of witnesses of assassinations who have died, but Rintels refuses to support him. Bill winds up dead, too. Frady seeks out a local psychology professor who assesses the Parallax Corporation’s personality test and says it is a profiling exam to identify psychopaths.
Of course, Joe takes the test and gets himself recruited by Parallax. The scene where he watches a montage of images to determine if he’d be a good killer gives Clockwork Orange a run for its money. Its really well done. It’s very visual of course, but listen to the eerie instructions given to Joe. It’s very Hal 2001.
Yes, who wouldn’t want to work for “The Parallax Division of Human Engineering”? It has a nice ring to it. What follows – accompanied by the saccarine music you heard, is a very disturbing montage of sex, violence, weird patriotic imagery, etc . . .
Joe is undercover now, pretending he’s been successfully trained/brainwashed as an assassin. But really, he tries to stop the assasination of a senator, but he gets scapegoated as the real killer. Joe is shot by Parallax agents pretending to be secret service. This is how they cover their tracks – the Parallax assassins kill the man about to expose the whole thing. The film comes full circle as the same committee that began the film meets and names Joe as yet another lone gunmen motivated by leftist politics.
Not to be outdone in the paranoia department, or dashing leading men of the 70s for that matter, is Syndey Pollack’s 1975 film Three Days of the Condor, based on the James Grady novel Six Days of the Condor. It’s a brilliant and absorbing political thriller set in New York and Washington DC about a CIA analyst whose entire section is murdered to cover up a nefarious plot. Pollack pairs up with his muse, Robert Redford. These two worked on seven movies together. The Way We Were, Out of Africa, and All the President’s Men, for example. The film also stars Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, and Max von Sydow.
Joe Turner is a bookish CIA analyst, code named “Condor”. He works at the American Literary Historical Society in New York City, which is actually a clandestine CIA office that examines books, newspapers, and magazines from around the world. Turner files a report to CIA headquarters on a thriller novel with strange plot elements. One day he leaves through a back door to get lunch. Armed men led by the menacing Max von Sydow enter the office and murder the other six staffers. Turner returns to find his coworkers dead; frightened, he grabs a gun and suddenly becomes a field agent with no one to trust.
Turner reaches out to his superiors and begins to suspect there is a CIA within the CIA that has all the real power. After another attempt on his life, Turner forces Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), a random beautiful bystander, to hide him from the rogue agents. He gets her to trust him and together they figure out more layers of the conspiracy, which involves a plan for the CIA to seize oil fields around the world. Turner’s report about the novel inadvertently shed light on the plan, so the whole unit had to go.
In this clip Turner confronts the CIA officer who thought up the oil plan.
For us today, we kind of have to chuckle at his naivete. Really? You think we don’t do that sort of thing every day? The Church committee featured far worse plots than this fictional one.
Eventually, Turner reluctantly sends Kathy away for her own safety, realizing he has to go it alone, and it probably won’t end well. The film ends with Robert Redford standing outside the New York Times building, meeting Cliff Robertson. He tells Robertson he’s given the story to the New York Times, so there’s no point in trying to silence him. Let’s listen to that exchange.
We’re left at the end of the movie not knowing if Redford will live or die. But also not knowing if any of his efforts will end up being worth it.
Our final film is very well known – All the President’s Men, also directed by Alan Pakula in 1976 and based on the 1974 book by the same name by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. What differentiates this film from the others is the fact it is non-fiction, but that doesn’t make the story any less disturbing to viewers who just two years earlier watched the Watergate hearings on primetime television. As we’ve mentioned in another season’s podcast, a film like All the President’s Men set the standard for portrayals of heroic journalism.
So, who’s in this amazing cast? Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffmann as Bernstein. We have Jason Robards as legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat, who we now know is FBI associate director Mark Felt. The film won a few Oscars, including Robards for best supporting actor, and some technical awards. But the film’s legacy only grew in stature over time, precisely because it captured this historic moment so well. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The plot is essentially what happened after June 17, 1972 when five burglars were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The next morning, The Washington Post assigns new reporter Bob Woodward to the local courthouse to cover the story, which is considered of minor importance.
Woodward learns that the five men, four of whom are Cuban-Americans from Miami, possessed electronic bugging equipment and are represented by a high-priced “country club” attorney. At the arraignment, James McCord identifies himself in court as having recently left the CIA, and the others are also revealed to have CIA ties. Woodward connects the burglars to Howard Hunt, an employee of Nixon’s White House counsel Charles Colson, another former CIA employee.
Then its off to the races when Carl Bernstein is assigned to help Woodward and the duo unfold layer after layer of connections to the Nixon White House, principally through the aptly named CREEP – Committee to Re-Elect the President.
Deep Throat reveals that White House of Chief of Staff HR Haldeman masterminded the Watergate break-in and cover-up.
Here’s Deep Throat outlining the depth of the conspiracy to Woodward.
You could easily put a scene like this in The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor and it would not be out of place.
The film ends with the publication of the full story on January 20, 1973 and a montage of real footage of what follows, all the way to the inauguration of Gerald Ford 18 months later.
So, let’s revisit our lies agreed upon and dig a little deeper into this incredibly important timeframe basically encompassing Nixon’s truncated second term between 1972 and 1976. Remember, these three political thrillers were released between 1974 and 76.
The first lie is about the national security establishment as the all-knowing, all-seeing monstrosity pulling the strings behind the scenes of our democracy. Did we create this Frankenstein’s monster? Is it really so formidable? Yes and no.
The second lie is about journalism slicing through the bullshit and exposing the Leviathan for the outraged public to see. Did journalists perform heroically in the 1970s, or should we be as cynical as Cliff Robertson to Robert Redford at the end of Three Days of the Condor? Yes and no.
Unsurprisingly, these lies are interconnected because we only learn about the abuses of power from these agencies through journalists. Seymour Hersh, Woodward and Bernstein, Ben Bradlee’s Washington Post a few years earlier than that with the Pentagon Papers. It takes whistle blowers and brave journalists, and since 9/11 I think its increasingly harder to find both. And the ones we get aren’t exactly model citizens – think Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and hell, throw in Glenn Greenwald. Not movie star idols to most of us.
Let’s go back a little and get some context on the two media events that clearly inspired our three films – The Watergate hearings and The Church committee hearings – both primetime events like the January 6 committee hearings airing right now as I write this. The media landscape is vastly different now and people can and will tune out of hearings, but not so in the 1970s.
I’d like to play a clip of the CIA director Richard Helms, one of the most deep statey kind of guys you could imagine, performing for the committee. Here he’s being questioned by Senator Fred Thompson, who we all know as an actor from Law and Order and a bunch of movies, but who previously had a career as a lawyer, most notably for the Watergate committee. He’s a republican, and one of the things worth noting in both sets of hearings is just how bipartisan they are.
Here Helms is grandstanding and sneering his way through Fred Thompson’s very appropriate questions about CIA links o the break-in
He’s a slippery one, and that’s why Helms enjoys the reputation he has today of being one of the more free-wheeling, cowboy CIA directors the agency ever had. The culture changed dramatically after he left.
When you listen to Richard Helms it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to imagine men like him dreaming up the oilfield operation in Three Days of the Condor, or, as would be the case with Nixon, placing loyalty to the executive branch over the actual mission of intelligence. We can be shocked by the violent beginning of Condor, Max von Sydow skulking around with his dead blue eyes killing names off a list, but the general tone of the film is actually very believable for the mid-1970s.
What about the other hearings, the Church Committee and the others that helped make 1975 “The Year of Intelligence?” Here’ a clip from CSPAN commemorating the 40th anniversary of the hearings. The guests are two former counsels assigned to the committee, Frederick Schwartz and Eliot Maxwell. They give some good perspective evaluating the legacy of the committee:
Let’s think about that last statement from Frederick Schwartz because it’s remarkable. Every president involved in the national security establishment, from FDR to Nixon, abused their power. That’s not surprising, but it does explain the bipartisan nature of the committees, something we probably will never experience again. I have to say the January 6 committee might be an exception. I hope it lasts, but seeing someone like Fred Thompson or John Tower lay into Nixon appointees like this is one part of the 70s I’d like to get back.
The Church committee really just exposed what had gone on for 35 years at that point, giving credibility to the lie agreed upon that this architecture we created to fight World War II and more s0 the Cold War serve themselves, and simultaneously work for a particular president or against one. The point is, there is no oversight, which fuels the paranoia we see on screen in each film.
In The Parallax View we never really know the identity of the Parallax Corporation. It could be a CIA front, it could just be powerful private corporate interests, or maybe even a foreign government. Who knows? The point is you never will, and someone like Warren Beatty, as wily and resourceful as he is is no match for the octopus-like deep state. We dont even know why they want these politicians dead. The committees declaring each assasination acts of lone gunmen likely reference the Warren Commission and its ongoing work about the Kennedy assasination.
In Three Days of the Condor the CIA is involved, but an even more secret CIA. One of tropes of the 70s thrillers is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have grown so large they can’t even police themselves if they wanted to. Think about more contemporary thrillers like the Bourne films. There is always some rogue outfit the legitimate CIA isn’t aware of.
And in All the President’s Men we have a more accurate portrayal of the deep state Leviathan. They can be very keystone cops, stupid, bumbling, and reckless. Maybe they are good at the cover up, but screw up the real operation. What Watergate showed was just how entitled these guys can be, and overconfident. Richard Helms wasn’t bothered by the break in, just that these amateurs could have ever been trained by him. Watergate was the lawlessness on full display. Is it better to have an incompentent intelligence community or a corrupt one that actually pulls the strings? My experience tells me its incompetence.
While researching the subgenre of the paranoid thriller, I came across this really interesting video essay about The Parallax View from a director named Karyn Kasuma. She has a ton of credits, including the pilot for Yellowjackets, the film Destroyer with Nicole Kidman, and she’s directed episodes of The Man in the High Castle and Billions. I think its worthwhile hearing from an actual artist to better understand why a film like The Parallax View leaves us so chilled.
I really get the part about a film being brave enough to show “a hopeless vision of America”, and as she says, that’s why it still resonates with us.
The second lie about heroic journalism, or the limits of what it can do to actually provide some accountability. The Parallax View is pretty clear about the impossibility of unraveling conspiracies, killing off a TV journalist first and then Warren Beatty. Something tells me the Parallax Corporation isn’t sweating reporters getting anywhere close to them, and most wouldn’t even know where to begin.
And what do we have to say about All the President’s Men? They really are heroic journalists, we know that, inspiring generations of others to reassert the power of journalism to provide oversight when others fail to do so. We talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly of journalism after 9/11 in our first season. The bottom line is we shouldn’t have to rely on reporters to oversee our sprawling nationals security state. The problem is they seem to be the only ones who seriously try.
I think we are so jaded by the last decade or so of US politics and executive overreach we look back on something like Watergate and go, Aww, how quaint . . . We easily forget just how earth shattering events like Watergate and the revelations from the Year of Intelligence committees were for complacent Americans, even after Vietnam. These films are great time capsules in addition to being just great films. So, I really want to recommend each of them, especially The Parallax View because I think its lesser know than the other two.