Culture > Movies

Film: Paranoid fiction

Movies | Hollywood imagines conspiracies; Washington fuels them

Issue: "Dirty little secret," Aug. 23, 1997

With every new movie, Hollywood reflects more of the growing distrust of power that creeps across America. Earlier this year, Absolute Power and Murder at 1600 gave us death in the White House. Now, Conspiracy Theory gives us black helicopters, CIA mind-control experiments, and secret earthquake machines on the Space Shuttle.

Mel Gibson plays a wacked-out New York City cabdriver who believes that "They" are out to get us. Turns out he's right, as an evil spook psychiatrist (Patrick Stewart) is trying to kill him. With Justice Department attorney Julia Roberts in tow, our hero tries to find out what he knows before the bad guys in black helicopters whack him.

Mr. Gibson's character is the reverse of the typical action figure movie-hero; he's an insecure, paranoid loner with a stalker's obsession on Ms. Roberts. Meanwhile, Mr. Stewart's Dr. Jonas tries to convince our heroine that he's the true good guy. After all, he's from the government. He's here to help you.

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Unfortunately, this movie is a great idea on paper but crashes like a military spy balloon on film. Men In Black is far better in conveying the atmosphere of a world where paranoia is a survival skill. Patrick Stewart (Star Trek's Picard) is wasted in a movie that gives him nothing to do but look menacing. After two-and-a-half hours of endless plot twists, the entire labyrinth dissolves into just another movie where Julia Roberts is being chased.

Air Force One is better at portraying its own secret plot. This time a bunch of mad Russian nationalists hijack the presidential plane. President Harrison Ford takes center stage as an ex-Vietnam War super-soldier who single-handedly stops the bad guys, a group led by Gary Oldham in the familiar role of the erudite psychopath. Director Wolfgang Peterson, who directed the classic war movie Das Boot (see review in World, May 17/24, 1997), shows he's still a master at creating suspense in cramped places.

This movie is engrossing, even though it's full of implausabilities. Who needs the Secret Service when the president can stop the terrorists on his own? And the plane itself is right out of the James Bond series: It's bulletproof, bombproof and nukeproof, with a handy-dandy escape pod. On the ground is Vice President Glenn Close, who sits in the White House squabbling with advisers over Who's In Charge Here.

For a movie from a Japanese company with a German director, Air Force One is super-patriotic-with a twist of New World Order. President Harrison Ford's speech about making the world safe for democracy would bring Woodrow Wilson back from the grave to cheer. Here is old-fashioned president-worship. But at least this commander-in-chief loves his wife and didn't dodge the draft.

When real nightmares come true, however, Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson aren't there to save the day. And don't expect a happy ending. The nearly three-hour documentary Waco: The Rules Of Engagement tells the story of the Texas tragedy that helped justify today's paranoia.

Filmmaker William Gazecki (who isn't a conservative) claims that the FBI and ATF bungled the operation that led to the grisly deaths of 76 men, women, and children on April 19, 1993. He presents an amazing compilation of TV footage, Branch Davidian home video, and infrared footage that shows the group from its Adventist origins to the post-siege congressional hearings.

Waco argues that the Feds demonized Koresh and company and treated them as an enemy to be conquered. According to the film, the agents accidentally caused the inferno by gassing their targets with inflammable gasses, then fired machine gun rounds at the Davidians who tried to escape.

Janet Reno and those under her come off as militaristic buffoons who abused their power so they would look good in front of the media. They inadvertently created the apocalyptic confrontation with Babylon that the Davidans had expected for decades.

David Koresh doesn't get whitewashed either. The former Vernon Howell had some unusual ideas about marriage, believing that he was called to have multiple wives (including underage girls) to beget 24 children who would be the 24 Elders of Revelation. Nevertheless, they didn't deserve to die such horrible deaths.

While we can't take Gazecki's version, currently being shown at art-houses, as the answer to the questions about the standoff, it asks some fascinating questions. This is top-notch muckraking. See it-and form your own conspiracy theory.

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