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Video Box: Seven Days in May

Image courtesy and IMDb

Cold War Paranoia, Part II

Seven Days in May

USA, 1964

Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March

Directed by John Frankenheimer

118 minutes

The atmosphere in Washington is poisonous. The unpopular President (Fredric March) is under continual fire from charismatic General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), the darling of the television networks and the anti-Communist right wing, who accuses him of being soft on America's enemies. For Gen. Scott and the large percentage of Americans who revere him, the notion that the President might sign a significant nuclear disarmament treaty constitutes an unacceptable threat to the security of the United States—and this, Scott and the other Joint Chiefs of Staff believe, warrants positive action to remove him from office. When Gen. Scott's aide Col. Martin "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas) finds out about the planned coup, he goes to the President with the information, and touches off a race to the finish line, as each side tries to counter the other for command of the U.S. government, with the clock ticking off the hours until Sunday, when the plotters plan to take over.

Seven Days in May is generally considered one of the best political thrillers ever made, a compelling story with superb performances by two of the top stars of the day that manages to convey a point of view without preaching. The script is good enough to carry the movie on its own, but what really brings the picture together are Lancaster and Douglas as two men who wear their sincerity on their sleeves, each man believing passionately that what he is doing is best for America. Gen. Scott, the man plotting to overthrow the government, is motivated not out of a desire for power but out of a real belief that this coup must take place to ensure the future of the United States; when he makes this point overtly late in the film, he sells it so well that the viewer has little choice but to take him at his word. Jiggs Casey, who admires Scott and doesn't much care for the President's treaty himself, has perhaps the harder job, as he chooses to align himself with notions of law and justice that must seem pretty abstract next to the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Ava Gardner has a fine supporting role as Scott's lover, a woman in possession of various things that Casey, to his disgust, must obtain through layers of deception.

Some points to ponder: