Monday, December 20, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Seven Days in May" (1964)

"Seven Days in May" is considered one of the all-time great political thrillers, but I found the 1964 film directed by John Frankenheimer a bit stiff and theatrical. It's still a good ripping yarn, but hardly worthy of the accolades that have been heaped upon it.

Partly is that its subject matter -- about an attempted military coup of the United States -- felt a bit stale, even in 1964. The nuclear age spawned a tidal wave of anxiety and fear, and movies like this played upon them. Frankenheimer's own previous film, 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," touched upon very similar themes.

Also in 1964 we had "Fail Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove," two movies with schockingly similar stories about a runaway American military setting off war with the Soviet Union, that approached the subject from polar opposite ends -- straight and satirical, respectively.

I can only imagine what it must have been like in that year, right after the assassination of an American president for reasons that still remain murky, with all these movies coming out about sinister plots to subvert the presidency and the democratic process. In some ways, it makes the previous decades' duck-and-cover drills seem reassuring.

Rod Serling wrote the screenplay based on the book Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, which was the best-selling novel in the country for almost an entire year. Serling's version centers around three pivotal characters: General James Scott (Burt Lancaster), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Jordan Lyman (Fredric March), president of the United States; and Col. Martin "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas), the man caught in the middle.

Lyman has just agreed on a proposed treaty with the Soviets to disarm all nuclear weapons. A great outcry has risen up against the movie, calling it foolish, and a gripping opening scene shows a riot between protesters in front of the White House. (Astonishingly, this was shot in front of the actual building. President Kennedy, before his untimely demise, gave his permission due in part to his relationship with Kirk Douglas.)

Scott is the shadow leader of this movement, and Jiggs Casey is his unknowing right-hand man. Casey's internal radar is set off by some communications among senior military leaders over secure channels regarding a wager on the Preakness horse race, to be held next Sunday. Only the leader of the Navy (an uncredited John Houseman) has declined to place a bet.

Casey also gets a visit from "Mutt" Henderson (Andrew Duggan), an old friend who says he's just been given a new post at eComCon -- an installation he's never heard of. With a little digging, it turns out to be a secret military base in the Texas desert established by Scott to train special forces for a military takeover.

Interestingly, the wondering part is quite small -- Casey immediately goes to the president with the plot, and from there it's a battle of wits between the president's advisers and Scott and his cohorts to outflank each other. Lyman was scheduled to attend a huge military practice operation on the Sunday in question, and he correctly guesses that he would have been kidnapped and possibly executed while in Scott's custody.

This is the part of the movie I found weak. Once the president learned of the plot, why wouldn't he immediately fire Scott and have him arrested? There's this whole long section where Lyman frantically searches for proof of his joint chiefs chairman's treason before he can make a move. He sends top advisor Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) to coerce the Navy holdout into signing a confession, while the lush of a senator from Georgia, Raymond Clark, is dispatched to drive around in the desert looking for this mysterious military base. (Edmond O'Brien earned an Oscar nomination for his colorful portrayal.)

All this is hooey. All the president's cabinet and advisers serve at the pleasure of the chief executive, and can be dismissed by him or her at any time, for any reason. Lyman could fire Scott because he doesn't like the way he parts his hair.

There's a powerhouse of a scene near the end where Scott and Lyman confront each other, alone, in the Oval Office. The president reveals that he knows all about the plot, laying out his evidence in a prosecutorial fashion. Scott angrily denounces Lyman as a "weak sister" whose treaty amounts to a willing surrender to the enemy. Lyman persistently demands that Scott resign, and Scott refuses.

It's a fun scene, with Lancaster thundering away about protecting the country, and March makes a tidy speech about democratic processes must be respected or the nation into an abyss. Great acting, fiery dialogue, and all built on a premise that's utterly ridiculous. (My understanding is that in the book, Scott immediately resigns when confronted by Lyman.)

There's also a whole left-handed side plot about Ava Gardner as Scott's former mistress who supposedly has some incriminating letters written by him. Casey, pretending to pitch woo at her, gets his hands on the letters and turns them over to the president to use as leverage against Scott. But Lyman resists the urge to use the underhanded tactic -- which is supposed to demonstrate what a noble character he is.

It's a good, engaging movie -- great-looking, too, with top-notch photography and production design -- but it tends to fall apart when you start kicking the tires and peek under the hood.

3 stars

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