Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Seven Days in May (1964)

Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964)  May 18th.

Mark it in your calendars (or in notes for future trivia contests). That is the day the government of the United States was scheduled to be overthrown by a military coup organized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over a nuclear treaty signed by the United States and Russia and ratified by the Senate.
But it never happened. Not even in the movies.

Still, May 18th was the day. The year was never mentioned...almost as a caution.

The early 60's were a great time for filmed political thrillers in the States. Kennedy was president, the world was at war (coldly) and the fictional machinations were filmed in a very appropriate black-and-white, just like the television sets that brought the news into our homes. It was a time distant from the years of World War II when the words of politicians and leaders were taken at face value, even if the individuals were two-faced. Cynicism about the government and political overreach began to settle over the populace with the threat of nuclear weapons, the McCarthy hearings, Ike lying about the U-2 incident, each in their own way chiseling at the foundations of the monuments we had in place in DC. 
Books and movies started to reflect that cynicism like The Best Man, The Manchurian Candidate, Advise and Consent, maybe Fail-Safe. And this one, Seven Days in May, from the the team that wrote "Fail-Safe," for this movie adapted by Rod Serling and directed by Manchurian director Frankenheimer, with an eye towards reflecting the world as it is...or as we would see them playing out on TV. Serling was overseeing "The Twilight Zone" series at the time, but this one was not too off his comfort "zone" by being equal parts suspense, intrigue, and character study, in words, terse, circumspect, and dripping with irony. Serling's writing could be a little ripe and on the nose, even spoken through gritted teeth and tight lips, as when Ava Gardner tells Kirk Douglas"I'll make you two promises: a very good steak, medium rare. And the truth, which is very rare."
Douglas plays Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey, adjutant to the fifth most powerful man in the world, but maybe the most charismatic, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March). The nuclear arms treaty is extremely controversial, causing violent protests outside the White House.
Briggs is a good soldier, snap-to and does his job, he's loyal to his boss and doesn't make waves (important for a Marine). But, odd things are starting to add up. There's the office pool on the Preakness that's passing between official channels between the Joint Chiefs, which is odd. But, what's odder is the reaction of Scott's "body-man" Colonel Murdock (Richard Anderson) who gets hot under the collar-buttons when Briggs mentions that betting pool. It isn't casual water cooler talk, it's treated like an international incident with the grunt who mentioned getting stationed out of the way to Hawaii. Odd.
Then, Briggs gets a visit from an old pal, Colonel "Mutt" Henderson (Andrew Duggan) who tells him about his current assignment at a secret base in Texas designed for interrupting television signals and designed for "seizure," "like the Commies already had the stuff, and we had to get it back.." That and Scott's accelerating role on the political stage, aiming for a run for the White House.  A somewhat heated conversation with a saber-rattling Senator (Whit Bissell) at a Washington function is the final worry. Briggs follows the Senator back from the party to a clandestine meeting at General Scott's house...when the Senator has already mentioned he'd be out of town.
It's just enough incongruous parts and shady behavior for Briggs to go to the White House to vent his suspicions to the President—there's going to be a coup by the military to take over the government. The President is concerned but cautious. Briggs is sent out to get details on the wisps of evidence that he has, while the President's Aide (Martin Balsam) is sent to make a call on the one military chief, Vice-admiral Farley Barnswell (John Houseman-his first screen debut, although uncredited) who has not opted into the "pool" to provide written evidence of the conspiracy. One of Lyman's closest associates in the Senate, Senator (Edmond O'Brien) heads to Texas to see what he can find out about the hidden base, while Briggs starts to gather evidence, including from Scott's discarded mistress (Ava Gardner).
It soon becomes clear that there is, indeed, a coordinated effort from a particularly dedicated cabal to take over the government, either during a nuclear training exercise or the President's upcoming trip to his weekend retreat—the President maneuvers his schedule, making Scott adjust his plans, which are then monitored by government agencies. But, how will it play out? It's an elaborate chess game with many moving parts with the final component being the medium of television, the direct link to the populace on whom the ultimate decisions of governing rests.
There's a lot of talk, as Serling goes overtime with terse conversations behind locked doors. It's drama, but Serling disliked raised voices, just like Washington does (or used to). There was never a time when the theatrics of the circus didn't invade governance, but before entertainers and the pulpit entered the fray, the popular conception of government conversation was discourse and debate, not some hard-balling cross-fire competition to be the loudest voice that doesn't pause for breath as is the impression made by the info-tainment of today's television. Why, General Scott's braying passion sounds downright reasonable in today's age of clowns. "You got something against the English language, Colonel?" barks the President when Briggs tippy-toes around his suspicions. Now, everyone does. Today's government speaks the language or lawyers and liars. Snake-oil salesmen.
Frankenheimer films in high-contrast black-and-white, with the high light-levels of television lights and offices and the deep shadows of parking lots and other holes of skullduggery. It's like he wants to show pictorially that the best governance is the one in the light and not the ones that scurries away from it. And for all the surveillance gear on display, conspiracy can still hide in plain sight. Especially if no one is really looking.
Seven Days in May is a classic movie and a repudiation to the old saw that looks to a savior or "a man on a white horse." Those who engage in hero-worship or ignore the media of manipulation are just bound to be disappointed, if only they were smart enough to admit it. It is also a great movie that should play in the Church of the Eternally Naïve as they endlessly chant "It can't happen here."

March 18th.

Remember, the year isn't given.

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