Total Recall

Total Recall: Our Favorite Conspiracies

The truth is, uh, out there.

by and | July 23, 2008 | Comments

Ah, conspiracy theories — they’re as American as mom and apple pie. Our fascination with shadowy sects and secret, nefarious schemes has inspired countless books, television shows, and, yes, movies — and in honor of the long-awaited arrival of the conspiracy-rich X-Files: I Want to Believe, we’ve compiled a like-minded list for this week’s Total Recall.

So, what’s your favorite brand of conspiracy? Government manipulation of the press? The military-industrial complex? Secret surveillance? Aliens? Assassinations? How about the Freemasons? We’ve got ’em all — and more. Put on your tinfoil hats and draw the shades, and follow us down the dark (but oh so entertaining) trail of conspiracies at the movies.

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Exhibit A:


(1991, 83 percent on the Tomatometer)


Oliver Stone had been making movies for years before JFK was released in 1991, but for better or worse, it’s the film that many filmgoers will always think of when they hear the director’s name. And for good reason: Stone’s 189-minute dissertation reinforced our deep national fondness for conspiracy theories, building a case against the Warren Report’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he assassinated John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Critics responded to the screenplay and a cast stacked with famous faces (Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, and John Candy, to name just a few), while everyone else did what they always do with a good Oliver Stone movie: argue about it. The film’s historical accuracy was hotly debated, insults were hurled, and all the while, it kept making money, finally topping out over $200 million in worldwide box office. Well played, Mr. Stone.

Exhibits B and C: The Day of the Jackal, Arlington Road


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Exhibit A:

The Parallax View

(1974, 91 percent)

If the movies are any indication, the 1970s were a time of widespread paranoia. Art imitates life, after all, and Watergate was grist for many a filmmaker’s mill — the idea that our government was engaged in dark machinations was brought to the fore in the Nixon era. The Parallax View is loaded with conspiracies: reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is present when a presidential candidate is assassinated at the Space Needle in Seattle, and discovers that other witnesses to the slaying have been murdered. After some digging, Frady obtains evidence that the sinister Parallax Corporation may be behind the murders, and is recruiting (and subsequently brainwashing) individuals to carry out further assassinations. Cynical and haunting, The Parallax View is an apt summary of the paranoid ethos of 1970s thriller filmmaking.

Exhibits B and C: The Manchurian Candidate, Conspiracy Theory

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Corporate Control


Exhibit A:

The President’s Analyst

(1967, 81 percent)

In this Cold War farce, psychiatrist Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn) is just trying to do what he thought was his patriotic duty: let the president unload all his problems. Soon, however, the analyst knows too much, and the CIA, the Soviets, and a bevy of agencies are all hot on his trail. What is behind this fiendish plot? The Phone Company. Yes, the same people who once encouraged you to reach out and touch someone are planning to enslave the human race. The President’s Analyst may be a little dated in spots, but its message — that huge corporations are pulling the strings of governments around the globe — still resonates, and is delivered with some sharp laughs.

Exhibits B and C: The Constant Gardener, Michael Clayton

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Government Manipulation of Facts!


Exhibit A:

Wag the Dog

(1997, 84 percent)

An American president is accused of sexual misconduct in the Oval Office, and the resultant public-relations firestorm is blunted by a series of conveniently timed military attacks that distract the press corps and whip the country into a patriotic fervor. This Barry Levinson-directed satire was based on a book inspired by the Persian Gulf war of George H.W. Bush‘s presidency, but its release came just months before the Monica Lewinsky scandal engulfed the Clinton administration — a scandal that, wouldn’t you know it, came with its own series of conveniently timed military attacks. Even for a country inured to the art of spin (and counter-spin), the convergence of news and entertainment was a little uncomfortable, but that didn’t stop critics from praising the film’s fine performances (including strong performances from Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman) and sublime touches (a war anthem by Willie Nelson? Perfect).

Exhibits B and C: Medium Cool, Bob Roberts

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The Illumnati. And the Freemasons!

Exhibit A:

National Treasure

(2004, 43 percent)

Critics may have neglected to certify this Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action flick Fresh, but few of them argued against its worth as a source of simple-minded fun — and as a bonus, folks who ponied up for a ticket were treated not only to a mullet-free performance from Nicolas Cage, but a plot that rested on two of the all-time favorite conspiracy sources: the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. Historians shook their heads and clucked their tongues at the inaccuracies and far-fetched twists that found Cage’s treasure-seeking protagonist decoding messages on the back of the Declaration of Independence and digging Ben Franklin’s super-secret spectacles out of a Philadelphia landmark, but the storyline’s plethora of centuries-old secrets appealed to the swashbuckling kids in us all, sending National Treasure to nearly $350 million in worldwide grosses and sparking a franchise that has already spawned one sequel and a line of books. Something tells us we’ll be seeing Cage solve a few more ancient riddles before he’s through.

Exhibits B and C: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, From Hell

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The Military Industrial Complex!

Exhibit A:

Seven Days in May

(1964, 100 percent)

When President Lyman Jordan (Fredric March) signs a peace treaty with the Soviet Union, Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) isn’t happy. At all. In fact, he sets into motion a plot to overthrow the U.S. government and take control of the nation’s mass media. It’s clear Scott is an uber-hawk, but maybe he’s also concerned that the end of the Cold War will put him out of a job. One thing’s for sure: Dwight Eisenhower could have been referring to him when he warned the nation of the military-industrial complex. Scott’s conspiracy certainly doesn’t pay much mind to the Constitution or the military’s civilian rule.

Exhibits B and C: Why We Fight

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Exhibit A:

The 39 Steps

(1939, 96 percent)

Alfred Hitchcock was particularly fond of a plot that involved an innocent man on the run from the authorities and agents of intrigue; he utilized it for such classics as Saboteur and North By Northwest. One of the master’s earliest thrillers in this vein was The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, a man who witnesses a shooting in a theater and is hustled back to the apartment of a beautiful woman who is also a spy. Later that night, she’s stabbed, and all signs point to Hannay, who’s pursued by the cops — and later, the 39 Steps, an organization of spies gathering intel for a foreign government. Hitchcock devises some fantastic set pieces (Hannay pulls off several narrow escapes) while weaving a convoluted plot that sates the audience’s hunger for spy conspiracies, no matter how vague.

Exhibits B and C:
Three Days of the Condor
The Bourne Identity

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Suppression of Upstart Political Movements!

Exhibit A:


(1969, 89 percent)


This riveting political thriller is loosely based on the true story of the 1963 assassination of Greek left-wing politician Gregoris Lambrakis, whose killing was linked to far-right extremists and their protectors within the police department. In Z, an upstart activist (Yves Montand) is killed in a suspicious accident after delivering a speech, and a young magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigates the circumstances of his death. After being stonewalled at virtually every turn, however, he finds evidence that implicates the police in the murder — and becomes a target himself. Costa Gavras‘ film is an angry (and action-packed) reminder that some governments will stop at nothing to cling to power.

Exhibits B and C: Lumumba, The Battle of Algiers

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Exhibit A:


(1992, 81 percent)


It’s over two hours long and it has an impossibly convoluted plot, which helps explain why a movie starring Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier, and River Phoenix failed to generate much box-office heat when it was released. But the film’s themes — government surveillance and espionage for espionage’s sake — are timeless, and Sneakers has become something of a cult classic since drifting in and out of theaters in 1992. The storyline is really too complicated to do justice here, but it basically boils down to Redford and Kingsley battling over a black box that has attracted the attention of the NSA — in other words, just the sort of scenery-chewing stuff that’s perfect for the old pros in this cast to have a field day with. Tech-fueled espionage flicks reached their apex in the Cold War 1980s, and they really don’t make ’em like this anymore — but if the current remake craze continues long enough, they’ll have to get around to “updating” Sneakers at some point, right?

Exhibits B and C: The Conversation, The Lives of Others

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Exhibit A:

Men in Black

(1997, 90 percent)

Catching Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones at their late-1990s apexes, Barry Sonnenfeld‘s adaptation of the Lowell Black comic book series wedded the zeitgeist to a time-honored American fascination — namely, UFOs and the mysterious figures who try to keep us from finding out about them — and earned nearly $600 million in worldwide box office for its trouble. The sequel wasn’t as much fun, but that’s pretty much a given when you’re talking about something as effortlessly cool and funny as Men in Black — from Smith and Jones’ terrific rapport to Rick Baker’s typically excellent special effects, it was the perfect summer blockbuster for its time. In retrospect, it’s interesting to imagine how differently MiB could have turned out — Jones refused to sign on until producer Steven Spielberg promised the script would improve, and Smith only got the part of James Edwards, a.k.a. Agent J, after it was rejected by Chris O’Donnell and David Schwimmer.

Exhibits B and C: Independence Day, X-Files: Fight the Future

Check out past editions of Total Recall in our column archives.

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