In his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter identified a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that served as a recurring pattern in American history (though not exclusively in American history). Writing in 1964, Hofstadter connected the dots between eruptions of panic about the Illuminati and Freemasonry through anti-Catholic conspiracy theories up to the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era. Writing today, Hofstadter would have have little trouble extending that line, from the Kennedy assassination theories that started to crop up immediately after the president’s death the previous November through internet-fueled conspiratorial thinking that has become a prominent part of the 2020 presidential election thanks to QAnon.
Movies have had a complex relationship with conspiracy theories. Misleading — and often outright false — documentaries have been used to push everything from 9/11 conspiracy theories to COVID-19 disinformation to alleged UFO cover-ups to whatever nonsense Dinesh D’Souza is trying to push on any given day. Yet the same elements that can make for irresponsible journalism — and conspiracy theories have a tendency to fall apart upon close examination — can prove irresistible to storytellers. The sense that we live in a world filled with dark forces and sinister plots can be queasily intoxicating. (And for this list we’ve kept the focus on conspiracy theory movies with political implications. You won’t find Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for instance, even though it feeds off the paranoid mood of the era, or stories of corporate conspiracies, real or fictional, like The Insider and Michael Clayton.)
What might not literally be accurate can still be metaphorically true. Here’s Hofstadter again: “Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.” In the right hands, conspiracy theory–inspired movies tap into a deeper sense of unease and distrust. They can also feed into it. Would our distrust of the government have deepened quite as intensely after Watergate were it not for the Watergate-inspired films that followed it? We may never know. But we can explore the question via some compelling films inspired by the deepest, darkest pockets of political discourse.
15. Executive Action (1973)
It’s hard to direct anything but faint praise toward the grandaddy of all Kennedy assassination movies, but this Dalton Trumbo–scripted docudrama — taken from a story by playwright Donald Freed and Rush to Judgment author Mark Lane — remains a fascinating document of a particular moment in conspiratorial thinking. Mixing documentary footage with reenactments and dramatic scenes (not unlike a later, more famous Kennedy assassination movie), Executive Action wastes no time establishing who killed Kennedy. It opens on a secret meeting of conservative titans played by the familiar faces Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer, and others. All (eventually) agree that Kennedy has to be taken out because of his support for civil rights, his plan to end the war in Vietnam, and other perceived inconveniences. The rest of the film meticulously lays out how their plan unfolds.
Executive Action stirred up considerable controversy in the early ’70s, with many critics arguing the whole project was in poor taste. Its tastefulness remains an open question, but the film is a perfect encapsulation of how quickly conspiracy theories attached themselves to the Kennedy assassination. It also captures how Kennedy’s death came to symbolize the moment everything went wrong for a whole generation. The film’s shadowy conspirators provide viewers with villains at once detestable and comfortingly familiar. Of course these anonymous men who meet in secret to maintain the status quo are the bad guys. They’re always the bad guys, and bad guys are in the business of cutting down those who challenge the system, a notion only confirmed by the subsequent deaths of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others — at least for those who saw a hidden hand behind those deaths.
14. Conspiracy Theory (1997)
It might seem weird to think of a paranoid thriller as being the product of a more innocent time, but consider this: To disseminate his wild theories about militias and the UN and the Vietnam War and whatever else crosses his mind, Conspiracy Theory protagonist Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) (1) uses a newsletter that he (2) physically mails to followers who (3) actively choose to subscribe to it. In 1997 (if not for much longer), conspiracy theorists still had to work to get their message out and then struggled to reach beyond a self-selecting bunch of the like-minded. And consider this: Gibson already had a reputation for being something of a conspiracy-addled kook in the mid-’90s (thanks to some wild ideas he had about Rhodes Scholars being tools of the New World Order), but he hadn’t yet picked up the violent, hateful, racist reputation he would develop few years later. His weirdness was considered part of his charm. Directed by Richard Donner and co-starring Julia Roberts, the film is at best mildly diverting as entertainment, but it’s an intriguing time capsule of a moment when conspiracy theories still felt marginal enough to be kind of amusing.
13. Wag the Dog (1997)
Released the same year as Conspiracy Theory, this Barry Levinson film, scripted by Hillary Henkin and David Mamet, also feels almost quaint in an era when the President of the United States regularly and shamelessly espouses lies — whether out of ignorance, delusion, as a diversionary tactic, or some combination of all of the above. Robert De Niro stars as Conrad Brean, a spin doctor who needs to divert attention away from a presidential sex scandal. To that end he recruits Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to help concoct a fake war, complete with heart-rending stories, hard-fighting heroes, and even a theme song. The title has become synonymous with creating a political distraction to change the conversation but history has had the last laugh on a dark comedy that hinges on the possibility that the administration would suffer dire consequences should its lies be exposed.
12. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
This second adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 bestseller (you’ll find the first a little further up the list) updates the original’s Cold War setting to fit the concerns of the early-’00s. The literal Manchuria of the original becomes Manchurian Global, a deeply connected equity firm with a vested interest in keeping the globe unstable and making sure war stays alive and well. It’s tough to remake a classic as respected and well-known as Frankenheimer’s original, but director Jonathan Demme reshapes the material in his own style, putting the emphasis on characters and the personal costs suffered by the brainwashed Major Marco (Denzel Washington) and the damage done when the unscrupulous attempt to profit by undoing democracy from within. Meryl Streep is particularly memorable as a senator with nefarious intentions that many at the time assumed, despite Streep’s insistence to the contrary, to be based on Hillary Clinton.
11. Winter Kills (1979)
Another, even wilder adaptation of a Condon novel, Winter Kills stars Jeff Bridges as Nick Kegan, the half-brother of a JFK-like president who starts to unravel the true story behind the president’s death nearly 20 years later. His investigation sends him on an increasingly disturbing journey that leads him to suspect everyone from the mafia to rival politicians to a Hollywood studio — until arriving at the grimmest possible solution of all. Director William Richert uses the JFK assassination as a fodder for dark comedy (with an emphasis on darkness), creating a kind of grotesque caricature of political paranoia featuring a cast that includes John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, and an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor. (Richert had to work hard to make it, too. After shady dealings and a murdered producer shut down production, the director and Bridges made another movie in part to finance the completion of Winter Kills.) Not very popular in its time, it plays like the almost nihilistic endpoint of the paranoid ’70s thriller. Speaking of …
10. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
If the Kennedy assassination opened up cracks of distrust in the foundation of American life, Watergate turned those cracks into fissures. Movies had featured shadowy government operatives before, but it took the 1970s, and paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, to turn them into movie staples. Sydney Pollack’s film goes even further, creating a world in which nothing is quite what it seems and every ordinary-looking stranger walking down the street might be a threat. Robert Redford stars as a low-level CIA analyst who returns from a lunch run to find everyone in his New York office has been taken out. Feeling he can trust no one, he forces an unsuspecting woman (Faye Dunaway) to shelter him. This being a film starring Robert Redford, they fall in love, but the pair soon finds love offers little protection from threats that seem to stretch to the highest levels of the government. The ambiguous downbeat ending seems to confirm a sense that something in American life had broken and might never again be put back together.
9. Seven Days in May (1964)
John Frankenheimer followed his The Manchurian Candidate with another story of an attempt to take over the U.S. government. The two make for a terrific study in contrasts. Scripted by Rod Serling, Seven Days in May’s power comes from its matter-of-fact approach and understated performances, which combine to create a disarmingly plausible depiction of a military coup to supplant the president (Frederic March). Kirk Douglas stars as a marine colonel who comes to suspect the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Burt Lancaster), a hero of seemingly unimpeachable character, is conspiring to stage a coup d’état. The film plays at times like an extension of Frankenheimer and Serling’s previous work in live TV, giving it an immediacy that a more stylized approach wouldn’t be able to achieve.
8. The Parallax View (1974)
Director Alan J. Pakula became synonymous with paranoid ’70s filmmaking thanks to films like Klute and All the President’s Men, the latter bringing the style of a ’70s thriller to a fact-based account of Washington Post reporter’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s breaking of the Watergate story. Those films sandwich The Parallax View, a conspiracy theory–inspired thriller starring Warren Beatty as Joe Frady, a reporter who comes to suspect the witnesses to the assassination of a presidential candidate are being knocked off one by one. As his investigation deepens, clues lead Frady toward the mysterious Parallax Corporation — but Frady quickly finds himself in over his head in ways he couldn’t have anticipated. Famed for its brainwashing sequence, Pakula’s film amplifies the era’s fearful mood to hysterical extremes but doesn’t seem any less truthful for it. It joined a chorus of films echoing the notion that corporations and the government — often working hand-in-hand — weren’t always acting in our best interests, even if their efforts didn’t match our wildest, scariest flights of fancy.
7. JFK (1991)
Director Oliver Stone has always spoken of JFK as a “counter-myth,” a kind of alternate story — maybe true, maybe not, and filled with contradictions either way — that pushes back against the official story of the Kennedy assassination detailed by the Warren Commission. That’s a playing-with-fire approach to making a film about history, and JFK has probably done more to further reckless theorizing about Kennedy’s murder than any of the assassination literature that preceded it. But that’s the power of filmmaking. However questionable its methods and conclusions, JFK is nothing if not a tour de force demonstration of how films can reshape reality. Kevin Costner stars as Jim Garrison, a New Orleans DA who follows a trail of clues that leads him to believe Lee Harvey Oswald was not Kennedy’s sole assassin. Stone crafts the film as an hallucinatory swirl, using multiple film stocks, jarring editing, and a disorienting soundtrack to simulate the confusion and fear stirred by Kennedy’s death and the possibility that we’ll never know the whole story. As a serious attempt to uncover that truth, it’s wanting, but that’s not how counter-myths work.
6. They Live (1988)
John Carpenter’s science-fiction classic uses a clean, powerful metaphor to create an allegory for the ways everyday people find themselves serving a status quo that furthers the interests of the rich and powerful: What if the rich and powerful were actually aliens who have infiltrated Earth passing as human and now use subliminal messaging in entertainment and advertising to compel the rest of us to consume and conform? Wrestler turned actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as John Nada, an L.A. drifter who happens upon a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see past the deception and spot aliens in his midst. Maybe, the film suggests, there’s some truth to even the wildest conspiracy theories, and maybe those conspiracies hide behind pleasing forms. Carpenter’s film often plays the scenario for laughs, but it still works as an unmistakable call to question what’s being passed off from the truth sent from the heart of the Reagan era.
5. Blow Out (1981)
A riff on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup that finds a murder hidden within sounds rather than images, Blow Out casts John Travolta as Jack Terry, a sound technician working for a grubby Philadelphia film producer. While recording some atmospheric noise he witnesses, and records, a presidential hopeful’s fatal car accident, an event Jack comes to suspect is actually an assassination. Propulsively directed by Brian De Palma, Blow Out combines elements of the Kennedy assassination, the Chappaquiddick incident, and post-Watergate paranoia into a potent mystery that suggests even a serial killer’s seemingly random acts of violence might be part of larger plot, building to a climax that’s almost nightmarish in its despair.
4. Secret Honor (1984)
That post-Watergate paranoia proved so pervasive even Richard Nixon couldn’t escape it, or at least the Nixon played by Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s masterful one-man-show movie. Adapting a play by Donald Freed (one of the shapers of Executive Action) and Arnold M. Stone, the film consists of nothing more than a drunken, sweating Nixon monologuing about his life, his presidency, his grievances, and those who betrayed him. Hall delivers one of the great performances, so great that it’s easy to forget the final act hinges on the revelation of a conspiracy theory that makes the title surprisingly literal. Whether or not the film believes it is sort of beside the point. Secret Honor suggests there are some forces so powerful that even the president of the United States can’t stand up to them.
3. All the President’s Men (1976)
To recount the story of Watergate, and the Washington Post reporters who brought it to light, Alan J. Pakula returned to the tools he employed in Klute and The Parallax View. They served him as well in dealing with fact as they did in fiction. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play, respectively, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose probe of a curious break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters puts them on a journey through a shadowy world of slush funds, dirty tricks, and dubious cover stories — and eventually to the President of the United States himself. For many, Watergate didn’t come as a shock so much as a confirmation: politicians would do whatever they could do to gain and keep power, never mind what values and democratic processes they trampled along the way. The headlines of the day felt like excerpts from a disturbing, richly detailed, deeply researched thriller. Pakula’s film respects the facts — while others on this list might claim to reveal hidden truths, it’s grounded in provable facts — and his eerie, unornamented approach captures how much the nightly news and the unsettling visions he and other ’70s directors had helped create had started to blur together.
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
A fever dream released at the height of the Cold War, John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s plot-against-America novel draws on everything from the McCarthy-inspired demagoguery to far-out stories of American POWs being subjected to Chinese mind-control techniques during the Korean War to create a sense of political unmooring in which no one could be trusted and nothing taken at face value. Frank Sinatra stars as Bennett Marco, an ex-POW troubled by dreams of witnessing fellow soldier Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) commit murder at the behest of their communist captors. In the years since their release, Shaw has been pushed into a political role by his mother (Angela Lansbury), who’s married a fierce anti-communist senator. That places Shaw in an ideal position to serve as a pawn for sinister plans Marco has to scramble to figure out and foil.
As gripping as the story is, it’s the sense of fear and fatigue that make the movie so memorable, whether in its dreamlike brainwashing scenes or the way Sinatra plays Marco’s sweaty distress as he struggles to keep it together talking to a sympathetic stranger (Janet Leigh) on a train. It’s a snapshot of an exhausting moment in history that, when it was released a year ahead of the Kennedy assassination, no one new was about to take an even more dramatic turn.
1. Z (1969)
Sometimes conspiracies are not only real — they hide in plain sight. Adapting a novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, Greek-French director Costa-Gavras employs the thinnest of veils for a film directly inspired by the 1963 assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis at the hands of the same right-wing forces who would take over the country via a military junta in 1967. Yves Montand stars as the Lambrakis surrogate, who is killed in public after giving a speech in support of nuclear disarmament. Despite a multitude of witnesses, the police push a story of a drunk driving accident, a cover for the assassins hired by the military to eliminate a perceived threat. That leaves a dedicated magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a photojournalist (Jacques Perrin), and a handful of others to attempt to uncover, and publicize, the truth. One of the major inspirations for JFK, Z shows the murder from different angles, and with differing degrees of veracity, drawing from varying accounts to depict the way facts can be manipulated — and sometimes hidden away. Despite bursts of dark humor, Z also creates an unshakable sense of unease and frustration, suggesting that some forces might be more powerful than justice and that even the full airing of the truth might not stop those in power from repeating a lie until the public is forced to accept it. That makes it both a landmark of ’60s filmmaking fueled by the anger of the protest movement and a warning of things to come — one that feels as relevant now as ever.