Wherever there’s a dead American president, there’s a conspiracy theory. And Oliver Stone (who went on to make Nixon and W.) saw to it that former New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s accusations of a cover-up reached a wider audience by making this pop politik movie with Kevin Costner in the lead role.
Donald Sutherland watches a call girl turning tricks for a couple of hours. His excuse? He’s on the trail of a missing businessman. That’s what they all say, Don. Fonda scooped an Academy gong for her role as the prostitute at the heart of this paranoid plot.
Capricorn One (1978)
Rather than jump on the Apollo landing conspiracy moonwagon, writer/director Peter Hyams moves his fishy story to Mars. Of course, it’s not really the red planet – the government baddies are forcing the astronauts to play along with their interplanetary hoax in a shed in the desert. But when the unmanned spacecraft explodes on reentry, the scam becomes a matter of life and death.
Vive la… conspiracy? This Franco-thriller explores the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a Greek politician who stood against the ruling military dictatorship. It’s presented as fiction, but there’s little hiding from the film’s target – a government which banned the letter Z, among other things.
Directed by Costa-Gavras (who also took the helm for Z, above) Missing is another shot at government corruption and conspiracy. This time, Gavras’ lens is focussed on the disappearance of American journalist Charles Horman (Jack Lemmon) in the aftermath of 1973’s Chilean coup. Pinochet banned Missing, probably the greatest of its many accolades.
Conspiracy Theory (1997)
Before he went a bit loopy in real life, Mel Gibson trained for the role with this thriller in which he plays everyone’s favourite conspiracy theorist stereotype – a taxi driver. Julia Roberts comes along for the ride, as does Gibson’s brother Donald, who makes a cameo appearance.
The Insider (1999)
It’s all smoke and no mirrors when Al Pacino finds himself in the middle of a big tobacco cover-up. Russell Crowe has his whistle at the ready, but will he blow it? You’ll have to watch Michael Mann’s two and a half hour film to find out. Or track down the Vanity Fair article it’s based on.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Hitchcock’s tale of a Moroccan family holiday that accidentally wades into an assassination plot is a masterly turn, not least the 12-minute Albert Hall scene (that’s actually shot in LA, conspiracy fans). The Man Who Knew Too Much is a remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 film of the same name. It also made our list of the best remakes ever made.
Marathon Man (1976)
Trips to the dentist will never be the same after you’ve watched Dustin Hoffman having his tooth extracted in Marathon Man. It goes to show you shouldn’t eat too many sweets, forget to brush your teeth or get caught up in international diamond conspiracies. There’s also some running.
Fat George Clooney stars in this Middle East-American oil industry thriller. If that sounds about as exciting as analysing post-war crude prices, it’s worth taking a run-up: Syriana is more complicated than extracting sub-tectonic fossil fuels while balancing hair-trigger geopolitics on your head.
They Live! (1988)
While best known as a wrestler, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper does strong work as the lead in John Carpenter’s hilariously OTT sci-fi actioner. Piper’s drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the truth of the world: that disguised aliens live among the populace and are working to subjugate humanity.
Arlington Road (1999)
Widower Jeff Bridges slowly begins to suspect his new neighbour Tim Robbins might be involved in a terrorist plot – but is he merely paranoid due to the stress of losing his wife? Arlington Road delivers tension by the bucketload, ramping it up until a fantastic final reel.
More after the break...
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Robert Redford plays a low level CIA worker who becomes embroiled in a deadly spy game in Sydney Pollack’s cold war thriller. You couldn’t accuse Redford of not doing his homework: he had former CIA director Richard Helms act as his personal consultant during the production.
Blow Out (1981)
One of Brian de Palma’s lesser known pictures, Blow Out stars John Travolta as an movie sound recordist who accidentally captures audio evidence that a fatal car crash was actually a murder. The name and plot are a nod to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, in which a photographer captures a murder in the background of one of his shots.
Seven Days in May (1964)
Kirk Douglas uncovers a military plot to oust a pro-nuclear disarmament US president in John Frankenheimer’s tense thriller. The movie’s US release was delayed several months because of the assassination of John F Kennedy, while Brazil’s government – the result of a coup similar to that shown in the movie – banned it entirely.
Enemy of the State (1998)
A typically swish direction job from the late Tony Scott serves this technothriller well, as Will Smith’s whistle-blowing lawyer feels the full force of NSA spooks sent to stop him revealing evidence of a crime. After seeing the levels of surveillance available to the government here, you may want to invest in a tinfoil hat or two.
Clint Eastwood’s movie is based on a true story. Angeline Jolie stars as a mother whose kidnapped son is returned to her – except the boy is not really her son, but another child put up by a corrupt LAPD eager to see the case solved.
Green Zone (2010)
Bourne buddies Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass team up once again in this highly-charged thriller set in occupied Iraq. Damon’s character is hunting for WMDs in the war-torn country, but the intelligence he’s being given is always inaccurate – there’s definitely something fishy going on with the higher ups. Based on true events but slightly boxed in by its desire to work as an action movie, Green Zone was filmed in Spain and Morocco and given an extensive CGI makeover to bring Baghdad to life.
The X-Files (1998)
The movie of the TV show about conspiracies, The X-Files slots in between seasons five and six and concerns a deadly extraterrestrial virus that threatens to wipe out the human race – and as always, all roads of Mulder and Scully’s investigation lead to the mysterious Cigarette-Smoking Man. The scene where a drunken Mulder urinates on a poster for Independence Day was included as a dig at the Roland Emmerich movie, which X-Files creator Chris Carter detested.
All The President's Men (1976)
The true story of one of the major conspiracies of our time, the Watergate affair, Alan Pakula’s movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. While covering what appears to be a minor break-in at the Democratic Party HQ, they stumble into a plot that reaches the highest echelons of the US government.
The Parallax View (1974)
Warren Beatty plays a reporter who becomes entangled in a plot to assassinate political candidates, in the second part of Alan J Pakula's trilogy of political conspiracy films. Landing slap-bang in the middle of the Watergate scandal engulfing President Nixon, The Parallax View is steeped in the paranoia of the time, depicting an America in which malevolent corporations can manipulate the political process, killing and brainwashing its citizens with impunity.
Roman Polanski's neo-noir follows Jack Nicholson's down-at-heel private eye as a simple divorce investigation draws him into a plot to take control of Los Angeles' water supplies. Based on the real-life clash over water rights in California, Chinatown is a film noir for the Watergate era, pitting the typical noir investigator against a grand conspiracy that he can't hope to unravel or influence.
Wag the Dog (1997)
One of those rare conspiracy films that depicts events from the conspirators' point of view, Wag the Dog finds Robert De Niro's spin doctor concocting a fake war with the help of Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman in a bid to distract the America public from a Presidential sex scandal. Bitingly satirical, and alarmingly plausible.
The 39 Steps (1935)
Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of the classic John Buchan's thriller pits everyman Richard Hannay against the titular spy ring – a sinister group smuggling military secrets out of Britain. Even after all this time, Hitchcock's first stab at depicting an innocent man on the run is marvellously tense.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Manchurian Candidate plays on Cold War-era fears of fifth columnists infiltrating America. Even military heroes and political figures can't be trusted, with brainwashed stooges operating at the highest levels of government. The opening sequence, in which luckless American soldiers are hypnotised by Chinese communists, still sends a shiver down the spine.