Faces in the Crowd: How movies reflect social, political turbulence

Introduction

From Cold War conspiracies to themes of social conformity, dangerous populism, a breakdown in order, or even just the fear of the unknown, Hollywood has responded to moments of change and turmoil in American society, often with the best, most creative films in the post-modern canon.

With provocative themes that both rattle and challenge their audiences, films of this nature tend to be quite popular — and for good reason. Not unlike the recent spike in sales for George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984,” which is nearly 80 years old, people are looking to literature and movies to give meaning to what’s going on around them.

The films in this gallery are some of the best, ranging from paranoid political thrillers like “The Manchurian Candidate,” to socially conscious sci-fi flicks like “Planet of the Apes,” to slyly subversive classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Most were made in the 1960s, when the nuclear age, Vietnam, partisan divisions, political assassinations, civil rights and social change defined American life.

Today’s controversial politics and dramatic cultural shifts continue to provide fertile ground for Hollywood, but only time will tell if modern directors can live up to the giants of the genre.

‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962) “The Manchurian Candidate,” directed by John Frankenheimer, ironically feels as fresh and prescient as the day it was released in 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is a dramatic and vexing tale of paranoia and political intrigue, betrayal and emotional destruction, hitting all of the major nerve centers of the period — the communist boogeyman being the most prevalent. But in the film’s darkest twist, it is not merely the North Koreans who brainwash cold, unlikable Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, but his domineering right-wing mother, played archly by Angela Lansbury. After its 1962 release, the film sadly disappeared from syndication until 1988, pulled from further distribution after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — a friend of Frank Sinatra, who gives an understated performance as Shaw’s broken platoon commander. The isolation of traumatized war veterans, the peak of left-right partisan tensions and the feeling of undeterred doom make this a political thriller in the truest sense.
‘Seven Days in May’ (1964) This brilliantly acted gem, also directed by John Frankenheimer, explores the anatomy of an American military coup during the Cold War. It pits a formidable yet increasingly-unmoored military commander against a president he views as a “criminally weak sister” who needs to be removed from office for the sake of American national security. One could argue that many elements of the movie’s plot are present today: a military infrastructure bred and fed on decades of war is suddenly threatened by a peacetime posture, defense cuts, and a deal with a rival power that’s unpopular with many in the ranks. In “Seven Days,” General Scott Matoon, played by the incomparable Burt Lancaster, believes it is his duty to right the wrongs of the civilian leadership (a peace deal with the Russians) and, thanks to the size and autonomy lavished upon the post-WWII military industrial complex, can marshal the makings of an elaborate coup right under the noses of official Washington. He meets his match in Col. “Jiggs” Casey (played by an equally intense Kirk Douglas), who sees his duty to the constitution, not to the military. But is it too late?
‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) The 1950’s has been described as the height of American conformity, a generation marked by the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” mass consumption, plastic gender roles and “Leave it to Beaver” television. No surprise it spawned an era of fantastic science fiction — Ray Bradbury comes to mind — that questioned the milquetoast culture and encouraged, however sotto voce, rebellion. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” slyly takes on the Borg-like assimilation by presenting an alien takeover of Americans by “pods” that look, act and behave just like our family and friends, but turn out to be more than a little “off.” The most chilling moment comes at the end, where Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) desperately tries to warn the non-affected in oncoming traffic, “You fools! Can’t you see they’re after you?”
‘Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1965) This dark farce directed by the brilliant Stanley Kubrick stars some of the best actors in the business — Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden — as a crazy cast of cliches and exaggerated buffoons who accidentally start WWIII with the Russians and immediately set out to justify it. When Scott, who plays General Buck Turgidson, the chest-thumping, flag-waving reactionary, buys into the “bunker” plan put forward by wheelchair-bound German nuke expert Dr. Strangelove, played by Sellers (one of his three roles in the film), a merciless satire ensues that plays out equally well today. “Mr. President, we must not allow a mine-shaft gap!” he explodes in a tongue-in-cheek exchange that reveals the ridiculousness of the military industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about. The entire movie is like this. Meanwhile, Slim Pickens’ Major T. J. “King” Kong rides the nuclear bomb down to a mutually-assured destruction of Earth with all of the hypocrisy, corruption and irrationality of the Cold War and nuclear age lingering over the strains of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” among the mushroom clouds. 
‘A Face in the Crowd’ (1957) In this Elia Kazan-directed classic, Lonesome Rhodes, played unforgettably by Andy Griffith, takes the archetypal charismatic, confident man to the next level: live television. At a time when the network television industry was reaching a golden era of critical mass audience, advertising and influence, Rhodes represents a Faustian character who plays both the heartland and the elite like a banjo, taking advantage of the greed and avarice of the system, and the need for authenticity among the people, while piling on riches and power of his own. Hubris and ego turn out to be his downfall, but not before mass disillusionment among his lovers and followers take its toll. It’s a heavy-handed, but well-paced cautionary tale made even better by supporting actors Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.
‘The Incident’ (1967) In 1967, when New York City was no longer the playground of “Mad Men,” but rather a slippery slope of grimy, edgy decline, the subway became a symbol of not only this grit and detachment from an earlier time, but of fear and isolation. Three years after the senseless, brutal murder of Kitty Genovese — while her Brooklyn neighbors reportedly did nothing — comes this heavy-handed but ultimately effective neo noir about two thugs who take a subway car hostage, relentless abusing and psychologically exposing the weaknesses among the riders, who seem utterly incapable of defending themselves or each other. It’s a depressing, somewhat exploitative display that perhaps says more about how the filmmakers — and by extension, America —  felt about the modern urban jungle than it really was.
‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968) Charlton Heston headlined this 1968 sci-fi thriller penned by “Twilight Zone” impresario Rod Serling in the middle of one of the most tumultuous periods of the counterculture. While American men were being drafted and dying by increasing numbers in Vietnam, the issue of civil rights had come to a head at home, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of that year. “Planet of the Apes” offered an uncomfortable metaphor for prejudice and slavery, the hubris of the ruling class, and the nihilism of the nuclear age. When Heston discovers he’s been home all along on what is left of America, smashed to bits by nuclear holocaust, he yells,  “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell,” it is the forlorn cry of a doomed generation, and a clarion call for the next.
‘Soylent Green’ (1973) Putting it into context, this sci-fi thriller starring Charlton Heston, the great Joseph Cotten, and in his last film, the legendary Edward G. Robinson, reflects three prevailing socio-political themes in 1973: overpopulation, rapid pollution and depletion of the earth’s natural resources, and corporatocracy. The scenes of poverty-stricken Los Angeles, yellow from smog, teeming with homeless citizens and devoid of greenery and books, are chilling. When the final twist comes (we won’t spoil it), the full weight of humanity’s doom is apparent.
‘The Star Chamber’ (1983) In 1983, years of perceived leniency under President Jimmy Carter’s criminal justice programs were coming to an end. In “Star Chamber,” a group of judges are fed up with the way the legal system seems to protect dangerous criminals, forcing courts to put them back onto the streets. So, they decide to take the law into their own hands, literally. Vigilante justice was a familiar trope in 1980s Hollywood, and this was no exception. But who do we side with — the judges who make sure repeat violent offenders don’t get off on a technicality, or the young lawyer (Michael Douglas), who, like his father in the much-earlier “Seven Days of May,” prefers the rule of law?
‘Minority Report’ (2002) Almost a full year after the 9/11 attacks, this Steven Spielberg film (based on a short story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick) targeted real wariness over expanding police powers as the Patriot Act gave the federal government broad new authority to spy on, arrest and prosecute Americans under the guise of new anti-terrorism/homeland security efforts. In futuristic “Minority Report,” actor Tom Cruise plays a “pre-crime” investigator who starts to question his role in mining sophisticated surveillance data to arrest and charge people with crimes before they actually commit them. Aside from the question of free-will versus determinism, “Minority Report” would foreshadow much of the debate over the national security state, Internet surveillance, data mining, and civil liberties that continued over the next decade and beyond.
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WASHINGTON — From Cold War conspiracies to themes of social conformity, dangerous populism, a breakdown in order, or even just the fear of the unknown, Hollywood has responded to moments of change and turmoil in American society, often with the best, most creative films in the post-modern canon.

With provocative themes that both rattle and challenge their audiences, films of this nature tend to be quite popular — and for good reason. Not unlike the recent spike in sales for George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984,” which is nearly 80 years old, people are looking to literature and movies to give meaning to what’s going on around them.

The films above are some of the best, ranging from paranoid political thrillers like “The Manchurian Candidate,” to socially conscious sci-fi flicks like “Planet of the Apes,” to slyly subversive classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Most were made in the 1960s, when the nuclear age, Vietnam, partisan divisions, political assassinations, civil rights and social change defined American life.

Today’s controversial politics and dramatic cultural shifts continue to provide fertile ground for Hollywood, but only time will tell if modern directors can live up to the giants of the genre.

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