A political thriller that aims to brainwash its audience too

A political thriller that aims to brainwash its audience too

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The throwback D.C. conspiracy theories of Captain America: The Winter Soldier have us thinking back on the best political thrillers of the 1970s.

The Parallax View (1974)

The Parallax View, like so many American films of the ’70s, constantly feels as though it’s going to fly wildly off the rails and sail off into the sky, but it somehow manages to hang on around every tight corner. It’s so audacious that it interrupts everything around the movie’s midpoint to put its hero through what amounts to a very mild brainwashing, meant to disassociate words like “father” and “country” from their positive associations and re-associate them with brutality and death—and the Marvel superhero Thor, apparently. At no point in the nearly five-minute montage do director Alan J. Pakula or editor John W. Wheeler cut away from the imagery to, say, the horrified face of their star, Warren Beatty. Instead, viewers are forced to keep watching the whole thing, the thought perhaps creeping into the back of their collective unconscious: We are being brainwashed, too.

The film’s 1974 release was greeted with muted reviews, and it did not receive the Oscar attention that met Klute and All The President’s Men, the two similarly themed movies Pakula made on either side of it. Yet Parallax View might play the best of those three works (often linked together in a loose trilogy of paranoid thrillers) in hindsight. What seemed laughable to critics in the ’70s—a wholehearted embrace of political conspiracies, particularly the idea of a reporter (Beatty) stumbling upon a group meant to recruit potential political assassins—now seems positively quaint in an era of NSA spying scandals. The film is informed by the age in which it was made (Richard Nixon would resign for his role in the Watergate scandal just two months after it opened), but it also feels like it’s predicting a far more maddening future. The plot doesn’t always make sense, but it doesn’t need to, so thoroughly does it convey a sense that everybody is in on something, and there is no escape.

Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis embrace extreme wide shots that make the characters seem even more like the pawns everyone watching already knows they are. In a late shot, attendees of a political-speech rehearsal ascend an escalator, looking up at a ceiling of pure white, marked by black lines that turn it into rough squares. The characters are all on a game board, even if they don’t know it yet. The actors embrace this sense of barely controlled chaos, with Beatty delivering a terrific take on the disbelieving man who slowly comes to realize things are far worse than he possibly could have imagined. Hume Cronyn and William Daniels offer great, sly work in supporting parts, while Paula Prentiss turns up briefly as the ex-girlfriend who initially turns Beatty on to the story that ends up consuming him.

And if nothing else, The Parallax View offers a sense that reality itself is slowly coming unhinged and that dark plagues are being released by dark-hearted men. It starts with a man falling from the edge of the Space Needle and only gets crazier from there. Not many films can claim the same.

Availability: The Parallax View is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services. 

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