If you want to take the pulse of America at any given time, look no further than the conspiracy thrillers playing in theaters. Whether it’s the crusading journalists of All the President’s Men or the whistle-blowers of The Insider, the heroes and villains of conspiracy flicks reflect the political and social concerns of their times. Currently, AMC’s new original series, Rubicon, provides a conspiracy thriller for the post-9/11 era. But no matter the time, there’s always a good conspiracy afoot. The following ten flicks represent the best of the best when it comes to the conspiracy thriller, and if your favorite doesn’t appear, well, it just might be a conspiracy.
Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid thriller creates a spellbinding mood of menace and dread that speaks to the creeping uncertainty of the early seventies. While ostensibly a murder
mystery, Klute bares all the markings of a classic conspiracy thriller: a private eye (Donald Sutherland) and a high-class call girl (Jane Fonda) are pulled into a
web of sex, lies, and corporate cover-ups and leave us certain that there was no place more mysterious and dangerous than pre-Giuliani New York City.
9. The X-Files
Mulder and Scully’s first big-screen outing draws on the mythology of the TV series, tapping into fears, long held by conspiracy theorists, that the government is covering up the existence of aliens. Though decidedly science fiction, The X-Files seamlessly integrates classic conspiracy-thriller tropes like black helicopters, secret experiments, and mysterious smoking men. The X-Files may have worked best on TV, but the flick is certainly tense enough to earn a spot on our list.
8. Marathon Man
The film that made it unsafe to sit down in your dentist’s chair still sends shivers down many a spine today. Laurence Olivier terrifies as a sadistic Nazi doctor, and director John Schlesinger brings the same sense of dread and big-city paranoia to the movie as he did with Midnight Cowboy, his other urban classic. But it’s Dustin Hoffman who earns the flick its spot at No. 8, as he heroically portrays the Everyman pulled into a diabolical plot beyond his control.
Part historical drama and part conspiracy thriller, Oliver Stone’s examination of the Kennedy assassination is the subject of much hand-wringing. While many question the veracity of Stone’s claims, it’s hard to deny the flick’s cultural impact. Using the Zapruder film and other evidence, Stone examines the theory that JFK was murdered by factions of the government. Whatever you think of the conclusions, you can’t deny JFK‘s resonance, which earns it the No. 7 spot.
6. They Live
When Nada (Roddy Piper) puts on a pair of sunglasses, he’s able to see hidden messages everywhere and realizes aliens are controlling us by posing as politicians and members of high society. This being the eighties, our hero grabs the nearest shotgun and starts blasting, but, far from being mindless, John Carpenter’s classic takes on hot-button topics like fascism with a sly wink. It’s also the only conspiracy thriller where a pro wrestler illuminates these heady subjects. That’s good enough for No. 6.
5. The Parallax View
Pakula’s second thriller is even better and indicative of an era when the ink-stained newspaper man was the ultimate truth-teller. Backed by an editor with an endless budget to indulge his reporters’ whims (those were the days), journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) uncovers a government conspiracy to train political assassins. A hero of the print age, Beatty’s shaggy newsman leaves us longing for the days when reporters were heroes, getting their hands dirty to break big stories.
4. Michael Clayton
Tony Gilroy’s award-winning drama channels the character-driven thrillers of the seventies, focusing on law-firm “fixer” Michael Clayton (George Clooney), who finds himself embroiled in a web of deceit and murder. The time-fractured storytelling heightens the ominous mood as Clayton realizes he’s being used as a pawn in a big-business cover-up. The climactic confrontation between Clooney and Tilda Swinton should be taught in film schools and is enough to land Michael Clayton at No. 4.
3. Three Days of the Condor
Just about every conspiracy thriller released after 1975 owes a debt of gratitude to Sydney Pollack’s masterful spy flick. There’s simply no denying the influence of the Robert Redford-led thriller. The concept of one man against a CIA capable of anything (even murder) has been revisited to great success in the Bourne trilogy and beyond. A gripping thriller that stands the test of time, Three Days of the Condor slots easily into No. 3, thanks to its message and charismatic star.
2. The Insider
The modern man’s conspiracy thriller finds a mild-mannered guy (Russell Crowe) teaming with a crusading 60 Minutes producer (Al Pacino) to blow the whistle on Big Tobacco. The Insider is indicative of the modern era of conspiracy thrillers, where big business has replaced shadowy government agencies as the big bad. Its brilliance lies in the way it shows that the individual working with a responsible media can make a difference, even in the wake of rampant corporate corruption.
1. All the President’s Men
Why does the Hoffman-Redford classic get the top spot? Because the truth is more engrossing than fiction. Pakula and William Goldman weave a masterful tale from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of the Watergate scandal. Everything from the measured, documentary-style pacing to Hal Holbrook’s performance as Deep Throat (“Follow the money”) remains an indispensable part of popular culture, its influence apparent in everything from Zodiac to Rubicon.