Armed only with our fearless inquisitive nature and tin foil hat, we take on some of the massive conspiracies that plague our world. Or, at least watch a few films based on them. Listen in for our takes on Foreign Correspondent, The Parallax View, Capricorn One, JFK, Conspiracy Theory, and The X-Files Movie.
It’s August 1939, and the storm clouds are gathering over Europe. Joel McCrea’s Johnny Jones, a New York crime reporter with a knack for getting in trouble, is rebranded by his boss as Huntley Haverstock and sent to London to report on the terrible crimes being perpetrated against poor, defenceless accents. While investigating multiple US citizens assaulting Dutch and German, he becomes involved with some individuals whose own concern is the hopefully not quite inevitable coming war.
Amongst these are Herbert Marshall’s Stephen Fisher and his daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), leading members of the Universal Peace Party, and Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), witness to a crucial, secret, clause in a defence pact between the Netherlands and Belgium. This McGuffin clause is of key importance and will affect German invasion strategy, so naturally they’ll do a lot in order to get it.
This includes assassination, and our Johnny sees Van Meer gunned down right in front of him before a peace summit in Amsterdam. Chasing the gunman through the Dutch countryside, he eventually discovers that dead Van Meer is, in fact, fake Van Meer (though still dead), and real Van Meer is being held hostage in order to extract the McGuffin. Naturally, though, by the time Johnny gets the police around to the windmill where he found the old man there’s nothing to see.
After a failed attempt on his own life in a hotel, he meets up again with Carol, and the two of them fall in love and decide to marry as they head back to the UK (and why shouldn’t they, they’ve been in each other’s company for … 93? Maybe even as much as 97? … minutes in total at this point?). Back in London the non-reporting reporter trips on the story yet again, and with his wonderfully relatable attitude of “dead or alive, a story’s a story”, starts to track down Van Meer and the plotters behind his abduction. He may also, even if by accident, save an old man’s life and stop a war.
Spoilers for 1939, but he doesn’t stop a war. But at least he can try to bring one of the masterminds to justice, though a plane crash may get in the way of that.
Foreign Correspondent has a lot of problems, some of which are simply products of its time, like Joel McCrea giving puppy dog eyes to Carol at her speech, and offence to all watching now; the tone deaf, silent film-esque increased speed “comedy” section during the car chase; and the villain’s perceived “redemption” at the film’s conclusion, which would surely have not flown had this been released in 1945 rather than 1940. And the bloody underscoring.
Perhaps its biggest failing is that the film’s subtext is so on the surface that it’s more or less text, a propaganda film to encourage interest in the war from the US public and perhaps even begin to implant the idea of US intervention. The film’s finale, with the rousing speech on the radio and the Star Spangled Banner playing over the end title, is, to this viewer in space year 2019, at least, and in line with previous viewings, corny at best and objectionable at worst, but the USA of today is not the (perceived) USA of the 1940s, and the target audience is American.
For all that, it is a Hitchcock film, with much of the skill and intrigue you’d rightly expect from that name, and it’s a compelling and entertaining thriller. Elements of other Hitchcock works from both before and after are evident here, from The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps to North by Northwest, and it rattles along at a great pace. A few scenes stand out visually, too, particularly the assassin disappearing through a sea of umbrellas in the pouring rain.
There’s a likeable central performance from McCrea, despite his character’s shortcomings, and his bantering with George Sanders’ insouciant fellow reporter Scott ffolliott is considerably better light relief than an old man failing to cross a street as the police chase a murderer. Laraine Day is watchable enough as the hoodwinked member of the obviously-not-what-it-seems Universal Peace Party, but her role is relatively weak and hampered by the unnecessary, and unbelievable, romance subplot, which is itself emblematic of the sort of failings that stop this being top-notch Hitchcock. Again, though, it is still Hitchcock, and therefore very much worth watching.
The Parallax View
Warren Beatty’s pricklish journalist Joseph Frady finds himself on the trail of a cover-up of a political assassination that leads back to the mysterious Parallax Corporation, that’s. Not afraid to guard their secrets with more murder.
Very much a product of the 70’s era paranoia thrillers, opinions are mixed on this, with it being a firm favourite of Craig’s, even if it does leave the rest of us only partially whelmed.
Our selection of conspiracy theory films covers, either directly or obliquely, the two most popular and talked about “conspiracies” in the English-speaking world, and this film, Capricorn One involves one of them.
Imagine if you will that the Apollo missions had successfully landed humans on the moon (because they did, but, look, I’m trying very hard to get into the spirit of things, here), and that ambitious space exploration had continued, with NASA preparing to send astronauts to Mars. Add to that picture, though, a fickle public for whom the engineering miracle that is space flight is now considered quotidian, and a President terrified of scandal and failure in a post-Watergate world.
It’s into this setting that Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One takes us, as a built-by-the-lowest-bidder life support system is discovered to not actually be able to support life. However, this information isn’t given to the astronauts – Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and John Walker (a wife-beating murderer) – until after they are yanked, in secret, from the rocket, mere moments before launch. Still, better to find out then rather than halfway to Mars.
But the rocket launches anyway, which is a bit weird. Well, it turns out that the failure-averse President wants the mission to seem a success, so the astronauts are sequestered in an abandoned military installation, replete with a full size replica landing craft and a sound-stage set up to pass as the surface of the red planet. But what if the astronaut’s morals cause them to raise objections?
“My morals cause me to decline to partake in this charade” is the objection raised by Brubaker, to which mission chief James Kelloway’s ready response is “well, then we’ll explode the bomb that’s on the plane your families are currently all on, oh and by the way I’m totally being compelled to do this by forces outside my control and am clearly not an integral and willing part of this evil scheme, honest”. Not being left with a lot of choice, the earthbound crew sit in a shed for two thirds of a year until called upon to “land” on Mars for the cameras, then a good bit more thumb-twiddling until the Capricorn spacecraft returns to Earth and they’re sneaked into the recovery capsule while nobody is watching.
While it seems that nothing could go wrong with this well-considered and fool-proof conspiracy, something goes very wrong with the conspiracy, and a failure in the spacecraft sees it explode on re-entry. Shocker! The astronauts grok pretty quickly what has happened and that they are now a liability, and make an escape, commandeering a plane and getting about twenty minutes away into the Texan desert before running out of fuel. What is left for them is a race: reach publicity and save themselves, or be killed by the government to preserve the secret.
While this is going on, TV reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) begins to investigate the announced deaths of the astronauts, his suspicions already aroused by the bizarre disappearance of his NASA-employee friend, and the fact that someone tampered with his car in an effort to kill him. His efforts will lead him to be the astronauts’ crucial, and only, ally.
I’d never seen Capricorn One before and had really been looking forward to watching it, having wanted to see it for a while now. I’m glad to say I was not disappointed, as Hyam’s film is a hell of a lot of fun, and, while it’s not unfair to describe it as a polished B-movie, is entirely undeserving of the apparent scorn it received in many quarters on its release. Its premise is no less daft than that of the dreary The Parallax View, and its climactic helicopter chase scene is several orders of magnitude more entertaining than the 1970s’ ubiquitous, and almost always boring, police car variant.
Perhaps the biggest problem is with the astronauts: James Brolin fares best, though his strait-laced hero may be believable but is hardly interesting, and his colleagues are barely characters at all. Around them, though, things are much better, with Hal Holbrook all too believable as the scheming Dr. Kelloway, and Elliott Gould great as the reporter, playing it with just enough of a wink to stop it becoming too earnest. And is Telly Savalas as the crotchety crop-dusting pilot stunt casting? Absolutely. And do I care? Absolutely not.
JFK sees Oliver Stone take on the assassination of John Kennedy by the Coward Lee Oswald – or was it? Not if you listen to Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who, after being dissatisfied with the Warren Report’s take on things, launches an investigation into the shadowy conspiracy to kill JFK, and the alleged reasons for it, and the real guilty parties in this affair, Joe Pesci’s David Ferrie and Tommy Lee Jones’ Clay Shaw, not Gary Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald, who’s just a patsy.
And, well, so it goes, and I’m not going to dignify Jim Garrison’s ramblings with the dignity of a recap even in order to debunk them – there’s no shortage of resources already out there for that. There’s an instructive quote from Stone, who at the time knew little of either the actual facts or the conspiracy research about the JFK assassination, about reading Jim Garrison’s memoirs, along the lines that it read like a whodunit, and that as a dramatist, that excited him.
Y’know what, as dispassionately as I can manage, he’s right. It’s a hell of a story, and Oliver Stone knows how to put a film together. Even for a three hour plus film, it bombs along at pace and doesn’t feel stretched, and with a cast list the likes that he has gathered here, it’s tough to go wrong – Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, John Candy all make for an engaging bunch of supporting acts, and Kevin Costner is excellent in the role as the pure as the driven snow, selfless defender of liberty and the American Dream, Jim Garrison.
Of course, the problems stem from Jim Garrison being a complete fruitcake. I consider JFK conspiracy theorists at best, swivel-eyed lunatics. In the community of JFK conspiracy theorists, Jim Garrison is considered a swivel-eyed lunatic. This may give some indication of my general feeling about Jim Garrison, and despite many people warning Stone about the quite blatant inaccuracies, distortions and flat out confabulations in Garrison’s “investigation”, he seems to have managed to take up residence entirely in Stone’s blind spot, because it’s a story he wants to tell, that fits in with his existing worldview.
I first watched Olly Stone’s JFK over a decade after its release at what I then naively though was a high water mark in terms of general belief in nut job conspiracy theories – 9/11, mainly, but also anti-vaccination, chemtrails and all that garbage. I was angry that people were so credulous, and watching Oliver Stone – someone who self identified as a “cinematic historian” – blithely regurgitate these already roundly debunked, nonsensical theories, many of which are trivial to disprove, was hugely disappointing and infuriating to me then, and not much less so now.
Look, I get it. I don’t take the word of the government on face value either. But there comes a point when you have to accept all the actual documented evidence of Oswald’s guilt, and the exhaustive studies and experiments that all prove that, contrary to the plucked from the air statements presented in here, that the injuries sustained, the technique, the location and Oswald’s metal state are all consistent with the official line, no matter how discomforting it is that one random nut with better than average aim and a gun can kill the most powerful man in the world. It’s not any less discomforting to realise that one random nut with a gun can kill dozens at a school, or a church.
To some it’s more reassuring to think that all things are controlled by a hyper competent cabal of the self interested in government. Although oddly the people with those beliefs also seem to be the ones who least believe in any government branch having any competence at all. At any rate, Stone’s JFK wallows in its own self-deceptions and misunderstandings, and is at best misguided and encourages people down the path of being open minded to the points of their brain falling out. As such I certainly cannot condone or recommend it, although, and it pains me to admit it, it’s a really well made film that if it had been a work of fiction, well, I’ll rephrase that, if it had been about a fictional character, I’d most likely have unreservedly enjoyed.
Oh, and that entirely invented, slandering the dead, gay orgy scene? It’s inclusion is perhaps the most disgusted I’ve been by any film. Stone, or more likely Garrison has some serious issues.
To be clear: “Lunatic conspiracy nut cab driver hunted by MIBs for knowing too much, but which of his theories is it?” is a great setup for a movie. A great setup.
I remember renting Conspiracy Theory back in the day and hating it, as well as finding it incredibly confusing. I now realise I wasn’t confused, more likely bored out of my skull by it. I must have not yet nurtured my disdain for Julia Roberts back then, and I have since set it aside, which is good; I feel really sorry for her after revisiting the movie now. Well, as sorry as I can feel for a feted, multi-millionaire afforded the adoration of the masses upon some bizarre pedestal outwith my understanding.
Julia plays Alice Sutton an employee of the government, or some arm thereof, which it is being something I neither care to remember nor are convinced is ever actually made clear. Alice is being stalked by Jerry Fletcher, a cabbie whose perception of reality is distorted by his bizarre desire to imagine conspiracy theories of every act he reads of in the press, no matter how seemingly trivial. It’s all connected, man! Jerry’s histrionics seem of bafflingly little concern to Alice, even at the point at which he strides into her place of work and starts waving around a gun he just stole from a security guard. Ho ho, that Jerry!
Jerry of course sees men in trench coats everywhere, but at some point one of them actually turns out to harbour nefarious intent, cudgeling Jerry and bundling him into a van, whereupon he is tortured for info by shadowy figures in a scene that would love to think it’s from the movie Marathon Man, but sadly is not. One narrow Looney Tunes escape scene later, Jerry somehow convinces Alice, the woman he has been stalking, and in whose work he has been waving a gun around, to come back to his apartment so he can explain conspiracy stuff. Of course armed figures in black break up the party, and Alice is eventually convinced that Jerry is not entirely a raving lunatic.
There is a point midway through where the movie suddenly threatens to be interesting, in relation to an act that intertwines Jerry’s past with that of Alice, but then everyone involved remembers that it’s 1997 and somehow we have to have the leads fall in love to some degree, so that idea gets promptly shit-canned.
Here is a sentence I never thought I’d find myself recounting: Julia Roberts is criminally under-served by this movie. You heard me right. She remains a passenger to Jerry both figuratively and literally for much of the duration, except toward the end whereupon she is, for mere seconds, required to convey the emotion of “being quite upset,” at which point she out-acts the entire rest of the cast for the entire preceeding duraton of the movie in three seconds flat. To be clear, Julia Roberts is the thing I find least egregious about this movie.
So for Mel. Sweet, sweet, anti-semitic Mel, a man we have discussed at some length previously on this podcast, and whom we all agreed has probably paid his penance now.
I’ve changed my mind.
Mel Gibson can act, just not in this movie. Here we find him doing that annoying “three stooges” manic routine that director Donner fostered in him through the Lethal Weapon movies, only here against Roberts it is thrown into stark relief for the sad, schoolyard grade gurning that it is. The only person who thinks Mel Gibson is entertaining doing this shtick is Mel Gibson, and there is one moment in particular that made me cringe in embarassment at how out of his depth he is.
There’s also a moment early on of fantastic casual racism that now, in hindsight, is awfully hard to ignore. After crushing a cockroach in his sink, Jerry mutters “return to sender…” before tossing the dead bug into an empty Chinese take-out carton. No, Jerry. It’s there because you’re a filthy cunt with a sink that hasn’t been emptied and dishes washed in weeks.
This movie starts and ends with a paranoid obsessive delusionist stalking an entirely innocent woman, and wants to skull fuck two hours of your time inbetween trying to convince you that you ought to empathise with him.
This movie watched Blue Thunder and thought helicopters having a “whisper mode” is an actual thing.
This movie drowns in stupid assertions then cut itself shaving with Occam’s Razor.
Admittedly, this movie does also have a jibberish-spouting dude in a wheelchair biting off Patrick Stewart’s nose, which is a thing Patrick Stewart must have known when he signed his contract.
Still, as the Dream Warriors once sang, “who is more a fool, who is more a fool, the fool or the fool who knew this movie was crap for the last 21 years, told everyone as much in the Slack group but then for some reason argued the case for it’s inclusion on the podcast anyway?” I think we all know the answer to that.
According to IMDB trivia, Richard Donner first gave writer Brian Helgeland work after seeing him standing outside the studio gates with a sign reading “will work for food.” I really hope he got paid in food. Preferably a take-out carton full of cockroaches.
The X-Files Movie
This feature length outing of the X-Files, sometimes subtitled Fight the Future, nestles itself between series five and six of the then phenomenally popular television show cum pop culture touchstone. So popular that describing what The X-Files is, at least to folks of a certain age, feels as redundant as describing what Game of Thrones is to current audiences. But, on the off chance you, gentle listener, are not as fossilised as your dear hosts, I shall back up a little.
The X-Files, as a concept, sees David Duchovny’s cynically wisecracking FBI agent Fox Mulder out to prove the existence of the paranormal in general and existence of extra-terrestrials in particular, trawling through the bucket of weird and unexplained cases that constitute the FBI’s titular X-Files. Initially sent by higher-ups in the hopes of debunking his work, Gillian Anderson’s skeptical medical doctor turned FBI agent Dana Scully proves to be a staunch ally as they looked at not only a whole bunch of standalone, monster of the weeks type episodes, but the mysterious conspiracy between the shadow agencies running the world governments and the alien menace that is the centrepiece of this movie.
This Syndicate of collaborators have been helping the aliens with their plans to take over the world with a virus, in an effort to buy time while secretly attempting to develop a vaccine of their own. However the shape of their alliance shifts after a kid in Texas falls into a cave and is infected with a prehistoric form of this virus, that’s not simply killing humans, but uses them to gestate an alien inside them. Not an invasion, then, but spontaneous repopulation.
The cover-up for containing this, seemingly coincidentally, sees Mulder and Scully as part of a team investigating a bomb threat and unexpectedly finding the bomb, albeit in a building neighbouring the one that was actually under threat. With the FBI unable to defuse the bomb, during the subsequent operational post-mortem their spider-sense into procedural irregularities sees them tugging on some threads that lead back to the aforementioned outbreak, and could give them the evidence they need to finally prove this whole alien shebang. But, of course, the dastardly Syndicate aren’t about to let that happen, those dastards.
And so it goes, with roles for many of the series’ regular and beloved supporting acts, like Mitch Pileggi’s Assistant Director Walter Skinner, William B. Davis’s shady Cigarette-Smoking Man, and Dean Haglund, Bruce Harwood and Tom Braidwood as Langly, Byers and Frohike, Mulder’s even more paranoid buddies the Lone Gunmen. So, plenty to go on for fans of the series, and (William B. Davis aside) a bunch of brief and pointless cameos of entirely unexplained characters for anyone coming to this cold.
Which, in a nutshell, is the rather obvious, well, lets call it a problem, with the X-Files Movie, in that if you were to judge it as a movie, divorced from the five series and, what, a hundred hours of familiarity with the characters and the conspiracy arc, it’s pretty much an inexplicable mess of dense story arc and no character setup. And, so far removed from it, I suppose it is possible that someone may stumble upon this movie in isolation from the series, or think it a good way to get a flavour of the series before committing to watching it. They are, I suspect, in for a bad time. I suspect even I may have had a bad time, if I hadn’t watched a smattering of episodes a few years back.
But that’s a very much a problem that didn’t exist at the time of release, and it would be perverse to expect what is essentially an extravagant two-part episode to pretend that all that hundred hours of baggage, good and bad, didn’t exist. If you’re already bought in to the X-Files horse and pony show, there’s a lot to like in this outing – all the character interactions you love, and a sort of conclusion, or at least a very significant evolution, to a mystery that’s been dangled in front of you for five years.
I still like this a lot, in the main because I still like the X-Files a lot, and this is part of it. It is not, however, the best part of it, and it’s not too controversial a position to take that this was the series’ last hurrah before sliding somewhat in quality, or perhaps just position in the general zeitgeist over the next four seasons. Between nine seasons of this, and three of spin-off series Millennium and a half series of The Lone Gunmen, it rather exhausted most folks patience, mine included, but when occasionally dipping into the later episodes, or even the recent reboot, it’s still surprisingly enjoyable. In small doses. Years apart.
That’s all a bit of a ramble, but there’s not a lot of sense in separating this from the X-Files as a gestalt. If you’re new to it, well, this isn’t the place to start – that would be the first few episodes then practically any random selections from the first five series. But if you’re watching it through in order, this is a solid instalment.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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