Since this has been such a politically charged month (and someone stole my Obama sign from the lawn) I've been watching a political film or two because, obviously, I can't get enough of political chicanery in high places.
My post is part of the on-going Tuesday meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in and see what other films, television, etc. other bloggers are posting about today.
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) is a film directed by John Frankenheime (who had directed the much better film, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in 1962) based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and starring Kirk Douglas as a Colonel working at the Pentagon for the Army Chief of Staff played by lock-jawed Burt Lancaster - both serve at the pleasure of the President, played by Fredric March. My problem with the casting is that I kept thinking March was just too old to be President - in 1960 we had already elected the young and vibrant John F. Kennedy, but of course, he was already dead by 1964.
At any rate, acting-wise March as a very beseiged President Jordan Lymon is topnotch, as is Kirk Douglas as Colonel Martin Casey. I thought Burt Lancaster was a little over the top as General James Mattoon Scott, but then I suppose he was meant to be. Still a little of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas on screen at the same time goes a long way. Ava Gardner who plays the General's rejected mistress is a shadow of her former lovely self. Her face by 1964 was all broad and puffy-eyed. Still, I giver her props for not going the plastic surgery route. I'm more aghast at how her loveliness was squandered. But she really doesn't have much to do since she's basically a plot device, so she's fine.
Here's the basic plot:
President Lymon has signed (or is about to sign) a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. A treaty which is not popular at home, least of all with the Pentagon. General Scott is the President's chief opponent and has made his views well known in Congress and on television to the American people. Many in the country want Lymon out and Scott in.
Feeling his oats, thinking the public is behind him, the megalomaniacal General and a cadre of other Joint Chiefs are cahooting to...well, basically, take over the country within seven days in May - hence the title. To that end General Scott has managed to have built a secret base (!?) out in the western desert somewhere, prime nuclear missile silo territory. The plot has been on-going for some time with nobody the wiser. I suppose we're meant to think that the government was asleep at the switch.
Luckily for all clear-thinking, rational, peace-loving individuals, Colonel Casey has gotten suspicious (it seems he's the only staff member not privy to the plot) - certain minor incidents added up together lead him to an inescapable conclusion.
So he goes to the President who, at first scoffs - General Scott is a national hero, after all, a medal of honor winner and combat veteran. Scott strongly opposes the treaty but, treason? Casey makes a strong enough case eventually to get the President to take some behind-the-scenes action calling into play only a small group of men he can trust. One of the them is his best friend and aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and the other is Senator Raymond Clark (Edmund O'Brien).
Now this is where anachronism rears its head. This screenplay makes no mention at all of the Vice President. For all intents and purposes he doesn't exist. Okay, we can live with that - in those days the VP was merely a title with no real power or authority, free to be ignored. Fine. But when the Presidenst sends Paul Girard on a mission to Malta to get some evidence from a general (John Houseman) who is, apparently, the head of the fleet - he is sent ALONE, with no back-up and no protection whatsoever. And what's more he gets the incriminating evidence with no trouble. Huh?
Then Senator Clark is sent out into the desert ALONE to try and find the mysterious missile base - no back-up, no security, no nothing, not even a secret service man along for the ride. Huh?
Two middle-aged men, one of who is fond of drink, sent off to dig up info which may possibly affect the fate of the known world. Okay. They're keeping a low profile, you might say. But honestly, it stretches credulity.
Both emissaries must keep in touch with the White House the old fashioned way: from the interior of phone booths. The President waits for calls in the Oval Office and when he plays a cat and mouse game with General Scott, he has a sort of television phone thing going on. Very quaint.
(By the way, though I've never been a big fan of Edmund O'Brien, he is simply wonderful in this and steals the picture.)
But SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, shot in bleak and rather uninspired black and white, looks very much like a stage play enlarged a bit for film with lots of talk going on as each day goes by and we get closer to a confrontation. It has the same set look as other political thrillers of the time, i.e. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE BEST MAN (a much better film directed by Franklin Schaeffer) and others. This was a film world in which everyone smoked (including the Prez) everyone looked weary and otherwise disgruntled and appearances were routinely garish. Nobody got soft focus not even the very young.
So why am I talking about this film today? Because in spite of all my misgivings, the story is a good one and the talk among the characters is interesting and intriguing (not surprising since the screenplay was written by Rod Serling) if slightly old news. Plus I do like stories taking place behind the scenes at the White House.
Somehow we did survive the nuclear era (at least so far) and nuclear disarmament is a reality (sort of) and the Soviet Union eventually broke up under its own untenable weight. In the screenplay both sides believe that sooner or later somebody will blow somebody up. (It's a wonder to me that we survived as well as we did, actually.)
But it is oddly disconcerting to see a story in which a plot to overthrow the government is handled in such a low-key manner with so very little fanfare. The ending too is a flat let-down. In truth, the real winner in all of this is the Constitution.
However, I still say watch the movie, it does hold the interest especially these days when there is so much venom at work in this country.