The conspiracy-theory theme can be found in numerous films of the past half-century. If you’re looking to explore these movies, get started with this brief list of popular movies with a conspiracy theme. Don’t see your favorite? Submit your suggestion in a comment.
- The Parallax View (1974). From director Alan J. Pakula, the story of this film follows a reporter (Warren Beatty) as he investigates a mysterious corporation that seems to be behind high profile assassinations. The result is an entertaining and well-crafted, if slightly dated, movie that builds on that era’s growing public suspicion that there may be high-level conspiracies. The movie notably avoids the typical ending, opting instead for a more cynical conclusion that is more in keeping with the theme of conspiracy and corporate evil.
- All the President’s Men (1976). Director Pakula continued the conspiracy theme in this riveting retelling of the all-too-true Watergate conspiracy and cover-up. Based on the acclaimed book by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, the film stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as the journalists who discover and begin to untangle the secrets that brought down the Nixon presidency. The inside source called Deep Throat, who arranges late-night meetings in parking garages and other spooky places is entertainingly portrayed by Hal Holbrook (who also appears in Capricorn One). In the movie, Deep Throat comes off as a more benevolent version of the X-Files villain known as the Cigarette Smoking Man.
- Capricorn One ( 1978 ). Though a film that sits squarely in the “B” movie category, this entertaining story follows conspirators inside NASA as they fake a mission to Mars and then engage in a deadly cover-up on a massive scale. Complete with conspiracy theory hallmarks such as black helicopters, this movie has a lot in common with actual conspiracy theories that claim the real-life NASA mission to the Moon in 1969 was also fake. Directed by Peter Hyams and starring Elliott Gould, Sam Waterston, James Brolin, O.J. Simpson and other Hollywood regulars.
- Big Jim McLain (1952). Western star John Wayne stars in this story of an FBI agent hot on the trail of communist conspirators in Honolulu during the Korean War era. This movie is an excellent example of the anti-communist films amidst the tensions of the McCarthy era. Wayne’s interest in making a film of this type guaranteed that the conspiracy genre gained a new level of respectability in Hollywood.
- JFK (1991). Director Oliver Stone’s account of the alleged conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination is in many ways the mother lode of all conspiracy-theory films. Deftly blending traditional Hollywood staging, real archival footage, and faux documentary segments, the director presents a film that makes for compelling viewing, even if it is questionable history. (The movie met with angry reaction from many commentators when it was first released.) However, Stone’s movie is so layered that it remains engaging even after repeated viewings.
- Seven Days in May (1964). An under-rated thriller that was released shortly after the Kennedy assassination, director John Frankenheimer presents a chilling story that recounts an attempted military coup at the height of the Cold War. This outstanding film features stellar performances from Hollywood legends Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, and Fredric March. Coming just a few years after President Eisenhower warned of the threat posed by the “military-industrial” complex, the film’s theme remains surprisingly fresh today.
- The Manchurian Candidate (1962). By the time he made Seven Days in May, Frankenheimer had already made news by directing The Manchurian Candidate. It tells the story of a communist attempt to assassinate leading American political figures by brainwashing an unwitting American soldier. With stand-out performances by Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury. (Sinatra also had starred in another movie with a presidential assassination theme. Check out 1954’s Suddenly to see the actor in a more menacing role.)
- Chinatown (1974). Sometimes not recognized as a conspiracy film at all, this late example of film noir movie-making is, in fact, steeped in conspiracy story-lines. Dark family secrets and murderous corruption in municipal government provide plenty of opportunity for conspiracies to emerge. Roman Polanski directed and Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway star in this detective story with many layers of deception and intrigue.
- Three Days of the Condor (1975). The late Sydney Pollack directed this Robert Redford vehicle that follows the story of a low-level CIA analyst caught in a web of murder and deception. The story suggests that conspiracy is found not only originating from outside the United States, but also from deep within U.S. government itself. Fast paced and entertaining throughout, Three Days of the Condor is also pop culture evidence of how far the CIA’s reputation had fallen by 1975.
- Conspiracy Theory (1997). Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts star in this story about an ordinary man who thinks he sees conspiracies all around him. When he later stumbles onto a real conspiracy, he finds that his life is in danger and there are few who will believe him. This updating of a boy-who-cried-wolf story is filled with the kind of paranoia that helped make conspiracy theory a popular film theme almost a half-century earlier.
Read about these and many other movies, and about the times in which they were created, in the book Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics (2008) from Praeger Publishers.
Images (above): DVD covers of movies available from Amazon.com.