Cold War Paranoia, Part II
Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March
Directed by John Frankenheimer
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:
- Like The Manchurian Candidate, our first "Cold War Paranoia" film, Seven Days in May was directed by John Frankenheimer, who's been making compelling thrillers—political and otherwise—for nearly half a century. Frankenheimer cut his teeth in early live television drama, and the innate tension of that medium served him well in movies such as this one, in which the characters play with things that are much bigger than themselves and the future of the entire world is at stake. Frankenheimer is still working to this day: his most recent films have been 1998's Ronin and 2000's Reindeer Games.
- Rod Serling, who wrote the screenplay for Seven Days in May, is of course well known for being the producer and host of The Twilight Zone. In a way this is profoundly unfortunate, because it pigeonholes him as an easily caricatureable "sci-fi" figure. In reality, Edwin Rodman Serling was a pioneering figure of early television (his teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight, which aired as part of the Playhouse 90 anthology series, won six Emmys in 1957) who went on to become one of the more prominent Hollywood screenwriters during the 1960s (in addition to Seven Days in May, he wrote the screenplay for Planet of the Apes). A common thread throughout Serling's work was a burning anger at injustice and hate; he maintained his political consciousness throughout his life, and it informed much of what he wrote. At its worst, Serling's liberal humanism was responsible for the groaning preachiness of many of his Twilight Zone and Night Gallery scripts. At its best, it produced work like Seven Days in May, which works so well precisely because it is motivated by Serling's conviction that justice is not served when the rule of law is tossed away through whim or caprice. Seven Days in May is a very patriotic movie, but it is a patriotism of a sort that is utterly foreign to the John Ashcrofts, Dick Cheneys, and George W. Bushes of this country.