Whatever Happened to the Political Thriller?

Whatever Happened to the Political Thriller?

In just the last five years, a pandemic killed nearly 7 million people, World War III has become a distinct possibility with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Donald Trump tried to overthrow the American government to stay in power. We’re also just a few years away from our last chance to turn the tide in the fight over climate change and the advances we’ve made recently may not be sufficient enough to save us.

But look! There’s a new Adam Sandler comedy on Netflix. And a TV show from 2011 called “Suits” is getting monster ratings in reruns.

Knock yourself out, citizenry.

Granted, who couldn’t use a little escapism these days? And indeed, whenever the world starts to burn, the entertainment world tends to crank out a lot of distraction. The most popular movies during the 1930s, while the world fended off a global depression and fascism, were Astaire and Rogers romantic comedies. And in the 60s and 70s, a time that found the USA consumed by war, assassination, and bigotry, Americans often found refuge in fluff like “I Dream of Jeannie” or “Gilligan’s Island.”

However, the 60s and 70s also found plenty of filmmakers creating all kinds of heavier, politically-minded fare, too, scratching an itch to both entertain and challenge audiences. Movies like The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Dr. Strangelove resonated in the early 60s with a nation devastated by the murder of JFK, the overreach of the military, and a burgeoning nuclear arms race.

In the 70s, political thrillers became absolutely prolific with the likes of The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man—all political thrillers about contemporary, paranoid America. They were taut, tight hit movies. And they’ve all stood the test of time, and still resonate with the unease coursing through America today.

Political thrillers were a big deal in this country. Even during the extremely frazzled 70s, consumed by Watergate, the widening generation gap, the struggle for Civil Rights and the ERA, not to mention America’s continuing war in Vietnam, the population was still open to seeing such drama reflected in their dramas on the big screen. Why, the 70s alone gave us three searing, Oscar-winning classic films about the Vietnam War: Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

One of the standouts of that era was All the President’s Men in 1976, a political thriller that came out a mere two years after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace for his part in the cover-up of illegal campaign practices sanctioned by his corrupt White House. The film concentrated on The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (pictured in my caricature), and the almost insurmountable odds against them as they fought all the president’s henchman to get the story out. It was incredibly thrilling, creating sublime tension, even while telling a story that we all knew the ending to already. That’s how impactful the film was. No wonder it became such a huge hit with critics, audiences, and award shows.

Such films proved that there was a hunger for political thrillers and thus, the sub-genre became part of most studios’ slates for the next couple of decades. The 80s gave us such timely nail-biters as Blow-Out, Salvador, and Under Fire, all dealing with contemporary political issues ripped from the headlines.

The 90s produced standout thrillers like Clear and Present Danger and In the Line of Fire, both skewering presidential politics, and The Crying Game, a blunt take on the effects of IRA terrorism in the UK. Neil Jordan’s film even turned out to be one of the most unique love stories ever made for the big screen as Stephen Rea’s terrorist fell for the girlfriend of his enemy who happened to be a transgender woman. (Played by actor Jaye Davidson, also pictured in my illustration.)

Hollywood’s penchant for political thrillers may have hit its zenith in this century in 2012 when two blistering films were both nominated for Oscar’s Best Picture. They were Ben Affleck’s Argo, the winner, which was a period piece about two Hollywood producers helping a CIA agent rescue American diplomats from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. The other nominee was an up-to-the-moment examination of the use of torture in fighting terrorism called Zero Dark Thirty. In that one, Jessica Chastain (pictured in my illustration), played a CIA agent working to catch Osama Bin Laden with “extreme prejudice” as they say in the military.

But since 2012, there have been precious few political thrillers popping up on the big screen. Why?

It’s not like there aren’t stories ripe for the picking. (Refer to my first paragraph.) One would think such topics would lend themselves to political thrillers, but the closest we seem to get is actioners that brush up against such topics, like the Mission: Impossible franchise. Close, but not quite a cigar, taking up more of an escapist lane.

Granted, there have been some truly outstanding political thrillers in the last decades, but more often than not, they’ve tended to be period pieces like Bridge of Spies or Judas and the Black Messiah.

What’s the problem?

It could be that Hollywood is waiting for the other shoe to drop regarding a few of those big stories. After all, we’re not quite through with the pandemic, and they say another one might be right around the corner. Plus, we’re still in the middle of insurrection fallout, so that may account for a sense of hesitancy as well.

Additionally, cable news gives us plenty of the story 24/7, day in and day out. It’s rather exhausting, so perhaps the thinking is that the last thing we need at the cineplex is more political subject material. There’s also the fact that almost everything these days seems tinged with the ugliness of politics, so it’s become quite a turn-off to so many. Twitter doesn’t help with its tribal silos, and everyone raging or trolling about this event or that. That form of political theater isn’t thrilling; it’s utterly demoralizing and depressing.

At least streaming series are picking up a lot of the slack. Current shows like “The Diplomat” starring Keri Russell, and recent shows like “Homeland” have trodden the political thriller territory expertly, and it seems that the small screen is where to turn for stories done in that 60s and 70s vein. There are plenty of FBI shows up and down the regular tube as well, and they tend to fall somewhere between armchair procedurals that most TV audiences are used to, and the heavier, nastier stuff allowed in some of the more R-rated feds versus preds material on pay-tv.

One fascinating fact that may illuminate some of the dearth of political thrillers is that so far, most of the Gen Y and Gen Z audiences run both hot and cold when it comes to political consciousness. Those generations have demonstrated a keen ability to confront pressing issues of the day like gun violence or global warming via activism. Yet, the number of them who vote is another story altogether. Fewer than half of American 19 to 29 voted in the 2016 presidential election. That’s 15 points lower than compared with overall turnout. And the younger voting tolls have sadly been going down for years. Still, 2020 saw record turnout—154.6 million versus 137.5 million just four years earlier, but 18-25 voter turnout dropped five points from the 2018 elections to those in 2020.

Finally, political thrillers may not be as popular these days due to the simple fact that the real world is giving screenwriter’s imaginations a hefty run for the money. Can any citizen, let alone a Hollywood scribe, imagine the world looking quite as hideous as it does today with fascism on the rise all over the globe, tumultuous weather clobbering every nation, and Big Brother spying on every move we make, via all our modern technology?

And now A.I. is starting to replace humanity at a record clip, and it leaves an already suspicious nation wondering if there is anyone or anything we can trust. Still, with what’s going on with studios’ attitudes towards the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, one could easily imagine executives turning to ChatGPT to start churning out scripts, maybe even a political thriller or two, based on previous successes from the 70s.

Frightening, isn’t it?

In many ways, the two biggest hits of the summer—Barbie and Oppenheimer—were in their ways, rather political films, albeit the former was a satire and the latter, a period piece. Still, they did an excellent job of stirring the pot of contemporary matters that tend to drive political thrillers. Barbie tackled women’s rights and their role in society’s male-dominated caste system, while Oppenheimer contended with issues of mass destruction and the limits of war still in discussion today.

Neither were thrillers, but they were thrilling.

Perhaps today’s political thriller is still as prevalent in its way, albeit one that came dressed in all kinds of candy-colored pink. Was Barbie the new Woodward and Bernstein, helping to topple the patriarchy? We shall see …

*Feature image by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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