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Here’s the pitch: mid-budget political thriller, set in the very near future. Clashing mobs of demonstrators are rioting outside the White House. The president’s approval ratings are being hammered by a concerted campaign to undermine him, and his controversial peace treaty with Russia. In televised hearings, top military officers in glittering dress uniforms denounce the new policy, stepping over the line of insubordination right into sedition.
One lone, loyal colonel discovers that rogue elements within the government are poised within days to take physical control of all networked communications in the United States. The president will be deposed. It will take incredible courage—and luck—to stop them. I bet you’ve already caught on to what I’m describing: the plot of Seven Days in May, 1963, a crisp, well-made Hollywood thriller loved by well-meaning progressives in its day. But now…flip that script!
Because ironically the political descendants of the people who cheered on the president then might cheer for military revolt today, depending on who is in the White House.
Seven Days in May was a best seller, adapted for the screen by Rod Serling, who did his usual fine job of telling a crackling story with light-handed liberal earnestness. A defense of elected authority against the deep state works just as well for today’s right as it did sixty years ago for the left.
The idea that television, one of the biggest things to enter most people’s lives in the previous ten or fifteen years, had become the medium of political control, was still relatively new. The shadowy institutional antagonist of Seven Days in May, ECONCOM, is an acronym for Emergency Control of Communications, a covert plot of “responsible” Congressional and military authorities to exploit Civil Defense capabilities to take over the media. It should be needless to say that early-’60s Democrats like Kirk Douglas regarded that as a very bad outcome indeed.
The novel and the movie were set in 1963’s near future. The president’s name, Jordan Lyman, is a close approximation of Lyndon Johnson, still the Vice President while this film was made. The only sign that it isn’t present-day ’63 is the widespread use of video phones in the federal government, both as visual interest and as an on-screen shortcut to save narrative time. It’s one of the subtle modern touches that make a new version seem like a relatively easy shift to the present.
Director John Frankenheimer was usually very strong with visuals. He dramatizes the takeover plot expertly, often finding wordless ways to convey vital information. He does trip himself up in one scene, a brief but important one of General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), sort of an unlikely cross between Douglas MacArthur, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Vindman, delivering a televised speech to a veteran’s group. It’s supposed to be rhetoric so fiery and unhinged that it turns the audience into an angry, bellowing mob of fascists, but the words Serling provides aren’t all that inflammatory. So Frankenheimer’s camera and editing have to jump in to do the dirty work of propaganda, with brief cuts of grotesque-looking people filmed at grossly unflattering angles. It’s crude; worse, it’s stupid. It looks like a half minute of a silent era Soviet film, not like a visually credible television broadcast. For a moment, the mask slips. At the top levels of persuasion, you can’t afford slip-ups.
Another Kirk Douglas film of the era, Lonely Are the Brave, was rapturously received as an art film by progressive critics, but didn’t find much of an audience for its downbeat story of a vanishing breed of man with less and less of a place in modern America. That nonconformity and unwillingness to submit to authority was treated as a liberal attitude in its day. Yet there’s little in the basic situation of this bleak 1962 landscape of abandoned ways of life that wouldn’t resonate today on the populist right.
And hey, let’s be generous. Flipping the script can go both ways! The Hollywood right has a couple of early-’50s scripts hanging around its necks, solemnly ready to sell, metaphorically at least, to anyone on the left with the blind trust the country once felt towards the federal government, or someone newly concerned about the sinister motives of hidden Muscovite spies who are the ones spreading needless discontent among our deservedly happy people.
The Red Menace (1949) is just crying out to be remade as The Red State Menace. Originally, it was about a newly discharged GI. Disgruntled and down on his luck, he’s a sucker for smooth-talking Communist organizers. Today, in the hands of the creative teams behind Lightyear and The Mindy Project, it could be the story of a bitter young white man, clinging to his prejudices, who falls under right-wing influence and is quickly turned into a criminal saboteur. But thank goodness for wiretaps and, above all, informers! It takes a lot of neighbors, old ladies, and little kids eagerly dropping a lot of dimes to the FBI to keep a country safe.
John Wayne made the “notoriously” anti-Communist 1952 film Big Jim McLain, about a HUAC investigator sent to Hawaii by Congress to flush out agitators in the maritime unions. This could be remade as Big Jen McLain, with Aisha Tyler. She’s been sent by “The Squad” to root out hurtful gender stereotypes along the Honolulu waterfront, and find the hidden leaders of a group of tough Christian thugs who’ve been roaming the docks, forcing frightened longshoremen to accept their religious tracts.
Screen storytellers of the current era: many of you clearly have the inclination, and for now the opportunity, to re-brand the cliches of McCarthyism with your own names atop fresh new forms of intolerance. Flip scripts like these, and make it proudly explicit: Go for it! And come to know the taste of history’s endless verdict.
But for anyone interested in different screen storytellers of tomorrow: A series of occasional R> posts will be called Screwtape’s Screening Room, in honor of the C.S. Lewis stories. They’ll bring clinically cold and precise, professionally informed attention to tools for shaping mass opinion. These will be cynical, at times even seemingly admiring dissections of the fine workmanship, the sheer rhetorical craftsmanship, that goes into making some stories so widely effective and persuasive.
“And that was the president of the United States.” (©1963 Joel Prods./Renewed WBD)Published in