With the world engrossed by the turmoil of the News of the World newspaper’s demise amidst a whirlwind of phone-hacking allegations (which I’m sure many of you agree was done in the most despicable of manners to people who were thoroughly undeserving of such treatment), I began thinking about the giant conspiracy amongst News International big wigs surrounding their underhand actions.
Conspiracy theories have long been at the forefront of popular culture: from the mysteries surrounding Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana’s deaths to elements of the politics of virtually every regime to have even an ounce of power, we quite simply love them. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the film world has picked up on this and produced hoards of films with a conspiracy theory narrative. So as we all theorise about The News of the World, sit back and enjoy the ten best conspiracy theory films out there!
10. JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH (1986)
Ok, so my first entry is not a particularly serious conspiracy, but Jumpin’ Jack Flash combines copious amounts of comedy with a riveting spy plot and oodles of suspense. Whoopi Goldberg brings her usual comedic genius to the screen as Terry Doolittle, a bank worker who finds herself contacted by a British Secret Service agent looking for help escaping from the Soviet Union. Cue a series of hilarious events as Terry attempts to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and assist agent Jack.
From hilarious costumes (including a sparkly dress that gets caught in a shredder at a Consulate ball!) to rip-roaring dialogue (“Of course I know what a pawn is! It’s a small shrimp…”), Jumpin’ Jack Flash will have you in stitches, whilst also keeping you intrigued by the mystery elements throughout.
09. THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993)
Murder is one of the prime narrative plots within conspiracy theory films and The Pelican Brief combines this with politics and the legal system. At times rather confusing and a little hard to follow (not least because of the sheer volume of characters who become integral to the plot), this is not always the most accessible of conspiracy theory films. However, for the most part the film is extremely suspenseful and boasts riveting central performances from both Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington.
In addition to this, on a technical level this is a very proficient conspiracy thriller. The cinematography expertly captures the suspenseful nature of the narrative and helps generate mystery and edge of your seat viewing. Definitely not like previous entry Jumpin’ Jack Flash, The Pelican Brief requires you to slide into your seat, wide-eyed and brain fully engaged, to enjoy the full experience.
08. SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
Combining elements of drama and horror films, Shutter Island focuses on a central mystery surrounding the disappearance of murderess who is a patient at a hospital for the criminally insane. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a stellar performance as US Marshall Teddy Daniels who is called in to discover the whereabouts of the murderess. Uncovering a conspiracy and finding the hospital a little more than reluctant to assist him in his investigations, Daniels slowly begins to question everything and everyone around him. Far more than a simple conspiracy action-thriller, Shutter Island is primarily concerned with the psychological implications of discovering a conspiracy.
Director Martin Scorcese creates genuine suspense, holding audiences captive with the unpredictable nature of the narrative. For those who love a good conspiracy thriller, this is essential viewing. Taking all of the elements fans of this sub-genre are familiar with and turning them on their head, this is a unique entry that will be hard to compete with for decades. Definitely the kind of conspiracy theory film you can sink your teeth into!
07. THE DA VINCI CODE (2006)
If there is one thing that has been theorised about endlessly it is our notion of religion and who exactly God and Jesus Christ are. The Da Vinci Code adds a unique element to this by combining the most intriguing of conspiracy theories to the most universal of beliefs. Resplendent with remarkable action sequences and a plot that remains mysterious and exciting throughout, the film takes the best elements of a political conspiracy theory film and transplants it to a religiously inclined narrative. This, in turn, opens up the plot to a more historically based conspiracy that utilises the use of iconic works of art within this.
Whilst many would argue that the original source novel is far more impressive than the film, it does not dispel the fact that the movie is thoroughly engaging and entertaining in it’s attempts to bring the characters and conspiracy to life.
06. ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
Will Smith is one contemporary actor who embodies the All-American action hero ideal and his casting in the political conspiracy thriller Enemy of the State fit perfectly. Against John Voight’s corrupt government official villain Reynolds, Smith plays mild-mannered lawyer Robert Dean with an understated power. The casting of Gene Hackman also harks back to his earlier conspiracy classic, The Conversation, and his character here is rather reminiscent (even down to the fact that a photo from that film is used as the surveillance pic the villains have of him here!).
This kind of tongue-in-cheek aspect of the narrative suggests that Enemy of the State is attempting to regenerate the classic conspiracy theory films of the 1970s. In addition to this, the film combines an exciting and intriguing plot with some highly engaging action scenes (one of the best chase scenes since The French Connection ). However, it’s the plausibility of various aspects of the narrative that makes this a great film. From credit card tracing to face recognition technology, via the excessive use of security cameras and possibility of every fax or email you’ve ever sent being accessible, Enemy of the State makes for some gripping, yet unsettling viewing!
05. SILKWOOD (1983)
Based on the true-life story of metallurgist Karen Silkwood, this film delves deeply into the sinister underworld of nuclear science. Discovering a host of blatant safety violations for the workers of the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Ohio, Silkwood is deliberately contaminated, tormented psychologically and probably murdered to cover up her allegations. Although the full truth remains unclear and under debate, Silkwood is a film that takes a no holds barred look at the conspiracy surrounding the young woman’s discoveries and attempts to blow the whistle.
Meryl Streep brings all of her talent to the role of Karen, giving an inspiring performance as someone willing to risk everything to bring down the big boys. She remains equally powerful as she portrays Karen’s eventual slide into mental instability, giving a heart wrenching and haunting portrayal. Silkwood refrains from following the typical conspiracy thriller vein, by not offering an explanation for Karen’s death, instead leaving it open to interpretation. However, what it does do is suggest the different routes conspiracy films can take and Silkwood is very much a film about real-life people and an all too real conspiracy.
04. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011)
The Adjustment Bureau is a unique entry into the canon of conspiracy theory films, combining politics with an underlying romance (and no, not a sleazy kind of affair that leaves the politician open to blackmail and a conspiracy surrounding this) that is the source for the conspiracy. Based on a short story by science fiction mastermind Philip K. Dick, the film follows David Norris and Elise Sellas as they repeatedly meet, only to find someone or something trying to keep them apart.
The idea of an agency that has the power to shape our future and keep us on our correct, designated path is both intriguing and terrifying. The feelings of violation and desire to shape our own destiny that we all feel makes the underlying conspiracy hard to swallow. Which is exactly how Norris reacts! As he does all he can to alter his and Elise’s futures, enabling them to be together, he tackles the most powerful of organisations. This leads to exciting action sequences, suspense galore and a film that will leave you thinking…
03. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
This classic of conspiracy theory cinema was made in the wake of the real-life political conspiracy of President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal at the core of its narrative. Tapping into the contemporary American mood, All the President’s Men is a gritty and uncompromising account of the run up to the discovery of the conspiracy.
Washington is characterised in an expressively depressing way, as the symbol of all that is wrong and corrupt in the US. This is expertly reflected in the claustrophobic cinematography and the Oscar winning art direction. Both Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are excellent within their roles and they play their characters as vigilantes of the truth, the only hope America has for a free and just society.
Generating heaps of suspense as cloak and dagger mystery combines with political intrigue, All the President’s Men is one of the seminal examples of conspiracy theory cinema. Produced at the peak of the sub genres popularity – the 1970s, when Americans in particular lost faith in their political system – the film packs just as powerful punch today as it did upon its release.
02. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
With the Cold War still a heavy presence in both the East and West, Hollywood evolved from the use of nuclear science as a means of generating fear and terror within audiences. The threat of Communism still remained large however, and so they sought additional ways to express this on screen. The Manchurian Candidate used notions of brainwashing and mind control to depict the Soviet threat in a terrifying but spectacular way.
The performances are sensational, with Angela Lansbury as the manipulative and over-bearing mother of Laurence Harvey being the stand out one. Combined with the convoluted but engaging plot, these performances help make the film unforgettable. After the assassination of JFK, Frank Sinatra (who had close links to the Kennedy’s and their brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford) reportedly prevented The Manchurian Candidate from being in circulation for 26 years, due to its similarities with the President’s death. Whether or not the similarities really are that strong, the film remains a haunting and harrowing conspiracy film that will still have contemporary audiences on the edge of their seats.
01. JFK (1991)
The assassination of President John F Kennedy has been theorised and speculated about for decades. Second only to Marilyn Monroe’s death – who he of course reportedly had an affair with, sending the conspiracy theorists into a daze as they continue to try and link the deaths in any way possible – the enduring legacy of JFK’s popularity has retained our interest in his demise.
With films and television series continually being produced, it is only Oliver Stone’s JFK that looks at the conspiracy surrounding the assassination with enough weight to suggest there may be some truth in its suggestions. Kevin Costner gives one of his greatest performances as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans DA who discovers that there is more to the case than what is official.
Based on real life events, Stone perfectly blends archival footage with his own work, helping to create an almost documentary feel at times. This, in turn, makes the film seem far more realistic and the conspiracy that little bit more engaging. In terms of conspiracy theory films, this can only be described as exactly how to do it!
OTHER NOTABLE FILMS: (the majority of which you should seek out);
THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974)
THE CONVERSATION (1974)
CONSPIRACY THEORY (1997)
THE BOURNE SERIES (2002 –2007)
ANGELS & DEMONS (2008)
This article was first posted on July 13, 2011