12 posts categorized "Political Thriller"

September 08, 2017


Colesmithey2.comDirector Richard Sarafian (famous for the 1971 car-chase classic “Vanishing Point”) helms this absurd and problematic political thriller elevated by the keen efforts of Sean Connery and Cornelia Sharpe. You will likely never witness a stranger conduit for mixed-signaled political intrigue, here involving an Arab minister of state’s attempts to admit Israel into OPEC during the height of the seething oil crisis of the ‘70s. However implausible it is that Connery’s Scottish persona be masked with that of such a died-in-the-wool Arab identity as that of Khalil Abdul-Muhsen, Connery works acting magic to make everything comfortable for the audience.

The film has one of the most disconnected and inert opening acts you will ever see. Sean Connery doesn’t even make his first appearance until a good 15 minutes into the story.

Still, the filmmakers do a very clever thing by establishing Cornelia Sharpe’s cold-blooded female assassin Nicole Scott as a cunning killer would put Mata Hari to shame. After completing a kill against her politically powerful “lover” from Nice — she poisons his drink and suffocates him while changing disguises — her Arab bosses send her to seduce and slay Connery.


The movie is full of great shots of ‘70s era Manhattan, especially of the Lower East Side and of the World Trade Towers. The film’s shocking climax occurs at 92th and Fifth between the Carnegie and Kahn Mansions. The ending is a sucker punch that will leave many audiences more than a little confused. Nothing in this movie is what it seems.


“The Next Man” falls during a fascinating period in Sean Connery’s storied career. He had stepped away from the James Bond franchise five years earlier. Connery enjoyed huge successes with “The Wind and the Lion” and “The Man Who Would Be King” (both 1975) when he signed on for what was to him second nature, playing an international diplomat reaching out to countries at the United Nations. Who doesn’t want to watch Sean Connery speaking at the U.N.? Here is a terribly flawed movie that earns its value via the style and grace of Cornelia Sharpe and Sean Connery. The twist at the end is a good thing too.  


Rated R. 108 mins. (B-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

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March 26, 2017


State Of SiegeCosta-Gavras is an exquisite leftist filmmaker because he is too much of a pragmatist to fall into idealistic traps of the left or the right. His unique upbringing, as the son of a Pro-Soviet (Communist) Greek Resistance fighter in the Greek Civil War, meant that attending university in Greece or in the United States was out of the question. France offered the perpetual outlier an education in law in 1951, that paved the way for a switch to film school and apprenticeships with directors Jean Giono and Rene Clair.

Celebrated in critical circles for his groundbreaking film “Z” (1969), Costa-Gavras made fresh tracks across the backs of America’s power-grabbing military pawns of capitalist exploitation (think The United Fruit Company) with “State of Siege.”

The efforts of the radical left are just as dimwitted as the vastly more effective methods of rightwing corporate raiders; the difference is that one has all the money and guns. Living by the sword always means dying by the same blade regardless of who is doing the carrying and who is doing the cutting.

State of Siege2

Not Rated. 120 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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April 03, 2016



This 1976 Alan J. Pakula-directed picture is a high wire journalistic procedural with political thriller underpinnings, which began production while the Watergate scandal was still unspooling toward President Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

Washington D.C. is nothing if not an architecturally imposing urban zone teeming with government spooks playing carefully coded games of corrupt political persuasion. It seems as though anyone wearing a suit carries a badge of some government stripe that ostensibly puts them beyond the law. “Godfather” cinematographer Gordon Willis’s largely nocturnal framing of D.C. captures a sense of fear and foreboding. Every inky shadow holds a potential unknown threat.

Pakula fetishizes America’s now-defunct newsroom culture that once promised to keep America’s political process honest, if not accountable. Never before had a movie taken such a daring approach to dramatizing the grunt work of journalists whose painstaking process could seem objectively tedious.

Based on the 1974 book of the same title (by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward) no minuscule detail of the Washington Post’s vast florescent-lit news office goes unchecked. You can almost smell the ink coming off of the Teletype machine that legendary screenwriter William Goldman uses to expositional advantage during the film’s visually stark coda.  

The June 17, 1972 Watergate hotel break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters sets into motion a Washington Post investigation with mammoth repercussions. Newbie Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) picks up on clues during the following day’s courthouse proceedings related to the Watergate burglars that connects them to former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt and Richard Nixon’s Special Counsel Charles Colson.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars of misappropriated campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP, the best acronym ever), is the key to what was then the biggest conspiracy in American political history. This is where the term, “follow the money” comes from.    

Intuiting that their hunger for truth will render solid editorial results, Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) assigns Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and the savvy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to the story.

President's Men

Dustin Hoffman’s big-haired portrayal is a catlike creation with fast-twitch reflexes for quizzing his suspicious prey. The physically expressive Hoffman sits with the hip casualness of a spry high school athlete announcing his virility with exaggerated poses that teeter on vulgar.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Watergate scandal is how quickly the rightwing were able to not only recover from it, but to legalize their ever-expanding methods of political skullduggery. You need only to look at the Conservative Political Action (CPAC) to see how far in reverse America has come since the days when such political overreach forced a president to resign. Colossal scandals, such as the NSA surveillance program, reveal an utter lack of accountability in a modern era where rightwing think tanks and billionaires (such as Rupert Murdoch) have turned American media into a 24/7 propaganda machine.

“All The President’s Men” is a reminder of a simpler time before the internet-of-things drained all value from our lives. There once was a thing known as newspaper journalism; it was effective as it was work intensive for two reporters from opposite ideologies who worked together to tell the truth about the “rat-fuckers” who now rule the roost.  


Rated R. 138 mins. (A) (Five Stars — out of five / no halves

September 16, 2015


Sicario2A disappointment from start to finish, Denis Villeneuve’s attempting-to-be-edifying international drug thriller fails miserably by the social realist parameters it portends to fulfill with macho quasi-military bombast and blood-splattered spectacle. That most of the violence occurs in and around the notoriously deadly drug cartel-run city of Juarez, Mexico, serves as a surprisingly dull Third World window dressing.

The action picture, written by first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, works better if you go into it looking for plenty of exploitation with your political propaganda du jour. The inherent racism comes gratis.

This is not Casta-Gavras’s 1969 leftist agitprop masterpiece “Z.” Nor is it Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers.” “Sicario” comes nowhere near the shrewd directness of those political thriller milestones.

Villeneuve has spoken on how “America believes it can solve problems outside of its borders with violence.” It’s a valid point, but Villeneuve celebrates the violence he abhors during explosive scenes of mass murder that arrive with a stupid post-9/11 message of “Don’t Fuck With Us” that echoes around the movie. That life is cheap to both sides of the drug wars is clear. What isn’t is why we should care. Our collective subconscious understands that every “War” the US Government wages against anything it can get its bloody hands on is merely a money grab for the contractors who get the jobs and an ego boost for military officers out for promotions and who believe they are untouchable. America’s War on Drugs operates as a wholesale black market on an epic scale. Killing is written into the budget.


Considering that America is currently suffering more than one mass murder every single day of the year, I question what effect a film like “Sicario” will have on an American society that already fetishizes violence and guns on an obsessive level. Do we need more movies where an audience is made to watch dozens of human beings brutally shot or bombed to death for money or just a love of killing? Not so much.

SicarioAlthough handsomely filmed by renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, “Sicario” is too thematically ambiguous for its own good or to be taken seriously as a meaningful piece of editorial commentary on America’s 40-plus-year corporate-branded War on Drugs. The film is content to posit that everyone on both sides of the American/Mexican Drug War is corrupt, save for one innocent but sturdy woman of ethics whose values change over the course of the story.

The movie tilts a sloppy glimpse of the rampant venality that permeates elite (FBI) anti-drug squads, like the one overseen by Defense Department contractor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a dirty autonomous agent with a mean streak on a hair trigger.

Graver’s partner-in-crime is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the hitman (sicario) of the film’s title. Greed and revenge are the factors driving these cartoon creations of testosterone-and-steroid-laden characters.

Regardless of which government office is writing checks to these mercenaries, they act as free agents looking to line their pockets and kill men they stupidly believe are worse than they are. You have two well-armed gangs, but one is just a pinch more ferocious than the other. You can guess which side gets that honor.

The super-action dream team adopts newbie agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), although it’s never clear why such a group would recruit a new member in such a trial-by-fire fashion. Kate gets a crash course in the FBI’s secret methods of continuing their endless battle against Mexico’s brutal drug cartels. Nerve-wracking missions back and forth between Texas and Juarez allow for bullet-riddled scenes of ultra-violence and emotional and ethical crises for Kate.

When Kate asks Matt about their objective, he responds, “to dramatically overreact.” The line serves as an explicit theme line for the movie. Which doesn’t leave much room for a meaningful story.

Rated R. 121 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)


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January 26, 2013


Pablo Larrain’s Pinochet Trilogy Loses Substance

Gael Garcia Bernal’s television adman-turned-political-commercial-creator Rene Saavedra is such an ethically ambiguous and passive protagonist that “No” falls flat as a piece of wannabe agitprop cinema. Director Pablo Larrain continues his ongoing study of Pinochet-ruled '70s-era Chile — behind “Tony Manero” (2008) and “Post Mortem” (2010) with an airy statement about the power of the television commercial formula. This lackluster film is based on a stage play, “Referendum” by Antonio Skarmeta.

Rene is the fence-sitting son of a famous Chilean dissident exiled after the C.I.A. assassinates democratically elected President Salvador Allende in a coup, leading to the rise of Augusto Pinochet, a brutal despot. The terrible treatment his father endured has cowed Rene into utter submission under a corrupt system he can barely begin to fathom.

Dictatorial governance begets dictatorial interpersonal relations. After leaving his job making television soft drink commercials, Rene takes on the personality of mini-tyrant over his creative team, which is assigned to design and produce a 15-minute political segment capable of convincing the public to vote “no” against Pinochet in an upcoming referendum.

Pinochet's goons deploy various intimidation tactics against Rene and his staff. Even Rene’s separated wife and son come under attack from the dictator's relentless crew of thugs. Still, nothing polarizes the cowardly Rene into any action beyond the immediate demands of his job. He’s a corporate shill married more to keeping his weekly paycheck than to standing up and fighting when the situation demands it.

While the film’s production standards are high, the narrative is as unsatisfying as they come. It’s impossible to empathize with a protagonist who lacks balls. Rene Saavedra is one of the most impotent examples of a freedom fighter you'll find anywhere in cinema. With friends like this, leftists don’t need more enemies.

Rated R. 110 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 18, 2013

Broken City

Broken CityTrite melodrama masquerades as a gritty political thriller in newbie screenwriter Brian Tucker’s breathless exercise in cinematic boredom. Mark Wahlberg’s signature singsong delivery gets eaten up and spit out in his role as Billy Taggart, a New York City cop-turned-private-detective. Russell Crowe gums more than chews scenery as New York Mayor Hostetler, who is busy running a vicious re-election campaign against a hotshot newcomer liberal played by Barry Pepper. The story gets a stumbling start when Hostetler hires Taggart to spy on his adulterous wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Subplots dead-end; witness the dubious romantic trajectory of Taggart and his actress girlfriend Nat (played by Natalie Barrow in a thankless role). Taggart has the screenwriter’s-tic of calling Hostetler “Mayor,” and Jeffrey Wright’s freelance police leader “Chief.” The movie is so knee-deep in clichés and extended paragraphs of tail-chasing exposition that it’s not funny. Cindy Mollo’s shabby editing is even less of a joke. Suspense thrillers don’t come much more marginal than “Broken City.” How low can Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg go? This is one filmic limbo that hits the floor with a dull thud.

Rated R. 109 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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October 10, 2012


ArgoThe most exciting part of this Ben Affleck-directed story about a legendary rescue mission is the film’s opening crash-course in 20th century Iranian history. The United States-supported 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh is briefly revealed to have been the start of everything terrible that has occurred in Iran since. You might be shocked to learn that before the coup Iran’s oil was nationalized and its citizens lived better than Americans do now. But that’s not what “Argo” is about. If you’ve seen the trailer, there’s no use seeing the movie because you already know all there is to know.

Where a great politically driven ‘70s era potboiler like Olivier Assayas’s “Carlos” presented clear and cogent studies of its characters, “Argo” doesn’t take the time for such narrative luxuries. It’s a movie that works from the outside in, rather than the other way around. As the film’s lead, Affleck underplays his troubled character Tony Mendez so much that it draws undue attention. It’s as if he’s saying, “no acting going on here.”

Mendez is a CIA technical operations officer specializing in covert operations. The proverbial poop hits the fan in Iran when Islamist protestors take over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian revolution. Six quick thinking American diplomats hit the back door and are given refuge in the protected home of a Canadian diplomat and his wife. Back in the States, CIA officials wrangle about how to rescue the fortunate six who aren’t counted among the 52 American hostages who would be held for 444 days. Mendez hatches a plan to go into Iran alone as a Canadian film producer for a fake sci-fi movie entitled “Argo.” There, he’ll corral the six Americans as part of his film crew and get them out.

Debut screenwriter Joshuah Bearman comes at the material all wrong. A limp subplot involving the film’s phony L.A. office — inhabited by old school Hollywood blood played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman — is a throwaway succession of backslapping. Why the filmmakers for both "Flight" and "Argo" deemed it necessary to play Rolling Stones songs as Goodman's personal theme music is a subject worth investigation. The effect is just as silly in both cases.

The climax is so overleveraged that you never for a second believe that it’s any reflection of what actually happened. If it is historically accurate, then the screenwriter and filmmakers were simply clueless about striking the proper tone of realism to keep the audience in the hot seat. “Argo” is one more example of how Hollywood waters down its movies for mass consumption. They need to try harder. Much, much harder.

Rated R. 120 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)



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September 30, 2012


Manchurian Candidate

Based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) embodies a uniquely modern political thriller of far reaching implications and remains one of the most influential political films in U.S. history. Its title derives from Manchuria, the historical name applied to the region of northeast Asia where the Korean War occurred.

John Frankenheimer directs with a distinctive complexity of visual depth and a surreal tone of lurking menace. The story opens with an American military company being captured by Communist Chinese soldiers after being sold out by their double-crossing Chinese guide. Frank Sinatra plays one of the patrol’s soldiers. Credits roll before introducing Laurence Harvey’s brainwashed character Raymond Shaw, a rescued prisoner of war returning home to the States where a gaggle of reporters gather on an airport tarmac to document his celebrated return. Winner of the coveted Medal of Honor, cynical Raymond has no use for the false patriotism covertly bestowed on him by his politically ambitious mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury). Raymond’s smarmy stepfather Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) is a Joe McCarthy clone. Eleanor instructs the Senator’s televised acts of Communist witch-hunt provocation. We glimpse the incestuous nature of Eleanor’s relationship with Raymond during a full-mouth kiss that may as well be a kiss of death.


Frank Sinatra’s participation as the story’s perceived protagonist Major Bennett Marco was cardinal to the film’s production. None of the studios wanted anything to do with the picture until Sinatra signed on. United Artists took the bait.

Like the fellow brainwashed members of his imprisoned battalion, Major Marco is haunted by a recurring nightmare that morphs between a garden club party attended by a group of little old ladies, and a lecture given by a Chinese psychiatrist Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Diegh). In the dream, the psychiatrist orders Staff Sergeant Shaw to strangle one of his fellow officers — a task he calmly carries out with a knotted scarf. Raymond plays part in a similar “demonstration” wherein he shoots the troop’s youngest member in the head without emotion. Nonetheless, Raymond Shaw’s former fellow soldiers refer to him as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being” they’ve ever known.


The lasting effects of Raymond’s mental indoctrination are triggered whenever his manipulators suggest he “play a game of solitaire.” The sight of a queen of diamonds face card puts him in a trance, under which he is capable of anything — including walking into a freezing cold lake in Central Park or assassinating a presidential candidate.

Like Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Manchurian Candidate” presents a vision of dark conspiracy that permeates every atom of reality. The unsettling film added fuel to the fire of the many conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination, which took place a year after its release. Frank Sinatra went so far as to purchase the rights of the film to keep it out of circulation from 1964 to 1988. In 2008, rumors circulated that John McCain had been indoctrinated, "Manchurian Candidate"-style, during his stay at the Hanoi Hilton.  


Rated PG-13. 126 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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August 01, 2011

The Whistleblower

The-Whistleblower The illicit sex-trafficking actions of NATO peacekeepers -- both privatized and not -- is the subject of this incendiary film that falls prey to predictable dramatic conventions. It comes as no surprise that "The Whistleblower" is based on actual events. Financial opportunity in '90s era postwar Bosnia entices Lincoln, Nebraska police officer Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) to go there on a one-year assignment that pays $100,000. Kathryn hopes to finance moving nearer to her displaced daughter, whose father won custody of the girl. Insufficient backstory is provided about the reasons Kathryn lost the custody battle, save for an allusion to police work taking priority over her parental duties.

On the ground in Sarajevo, Kathryn gets a crash course in the way local justice favors male oppression over its female populace. Sarajevo bars serve a multitude of purposes, not the least of which is supplying a steady stream of nubile Eastern European sex slaves for locals and NATO agents alike to feast on with reckless abandon. Damning photographic evidence reveals to Kathryn the complicity of her diplomatically-immune co-workers in the area's rampant sex trafficking trade. As she investigates further, Kathryn discovers the greater extent of NATO/U.N./United States Government involvement in the trafficking of underage girls into Bosnia where they work as sex slaves to by back a freedom that will never be granted.

The movie goes astray in attempting to personalize the story of its female victims. Ukrainian teen Raya takes the brunt of a torture scene that contributes more as a planted piece of exploitation cinema than it does in moving the story toward an emotionally grounded place for the audience. Debut co-writer/director Larysa Kondracki is ill-equipped to handle the story's most delicate and important aspect. You get the sense that had she worked with a more experienced script collaborator than newcomer Eilis Kirwan, Kondracki might have been able to craft the film into the call-to-arms she aspires to create.

Rated R. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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