The Brooklyn Historical Society starts a three-part series this week showing political films focused on paranoia. But the pairing of history and obsessive fear-mongering is part of the current cultural problem. The series’ title, “These Movies Can’t Be Trusted,” is a fail. The phrase is not a criticism — it speaks to the distrust at the base of our grievous cultural and political division. Reviving second-rate films from the past, simply to foster more polarization, is doubly propagandistic — too much paranoia, as the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten sang in a thrilling, angry alarum.
The selected offerings — The President’s Analyst (1967), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and They Live (1988) — are semi-obscure, which doesn’t make them credibly distinctive or even good choices. The series caters to the particular, peculiar distress of today’s #resistance movement that encourages dissent even when it is nonsensical. “Nonsensical” is a good term for these three movies.
The President’s Analyst is Sixties rubbish (from back in the day when psychoanalysis was just becoming fashionable but still was considered slightly suspect, the unfortunate regimen of the emotionally unstable). This story of a psychoanalyst (James Coburn) entrusted with presidential confidentiality was obviously chosen merely for the half-witticism of its title, which is semi-provocative only for those suffering Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Three Days of the Condor is based in Watergate-era mistrust and cynicism. Its plot is modeled after Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers intrigue, exposing government secrets by dramatizing the violent, shady auspices of the CIA — treason now rationalized in the Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden era as justifiable whistle-blowing. This hip heroism concludes with a last-minute reference to the New York Times as the savior of the republic.
They Live, the best of the three, comes from John Carpenter (the Boomers’ Sam Fuller) in a paranoid mood. Its story of a man discovering alien interference in Earth’s politics neatly combines low-grade terror with a B-movie genre spoof that extends speculative fiction into social satire. Imagine the Russian-interference hoax taken seriously by a tinfoil-hat prankster.
It is unfortunate that a municipal institution like the Brooklyn Historical Society would support the trite incitement offered by this series. While fans might excuse these films as fun entertainment, BHS endorses the picks irresponsibly — under a rubric that enflames and instigates. Better, more-responsible choices were available:
William Richert’s brilliant and rousingly satirical Winter Kills (1979), a colorful burlesque (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond) about the JFK-assassination conspiracy, bests Three Days of the Condor by flipping its cynicism in order to ultimately provide moral inspiration — the heartening agreement and catharsis of the best political filmmaking from a culture seeking to heal itself .
Instead of underhanded defamation leading to the furtherance of division under the guise of righteousness, The Osterman Weekend (1983), Sam Peckinpah’s last great film, took social fragmentation as its subject. It examines the personal cost of betrayal within a family, among friends, and within a nation.
Even slick froth such as Conspiracy Theory (1999), a romantic thriller, is given substance by Mel Gibson’s charismatic portrayal of modern desperation as an alarmist with nowhere to turn. Movies that convey our delicate condition can also enlighten our confusion without merely exploiting it. Unfortunately, the BHS series proves that it is the snarky negativity of film-culture smart-alecks that can’t be trusted.