Retrospective

How An Underrated ‘70s Conspiracy Thriller Predicted the Modern Age of Political Paranoia

"Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe it's everybody else's problem that they don't get along with you?"

Warren Beatty in 'The Parallax View'
Paramount Pictures
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We live in a time of rampant misinformation and political paranoia, an era in which ludicrous conspiracy theories are allowed to take root in the minds of millions. Modern society has been driven to this point by numerous forces, including rampant, social media-driven disinformation campaigns and corruption scandals that have shaken voters' confidence in their political representatives.

In some ways, it feels like our modern political era resembles that of the early and mid-1970s — a period defined partly by the intense social turbulence caused by events like the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Plenty of movies have, notably, explored the sense of disillusionment and paranoia that pervaded American society throughout the ‘70s. Few have ever done it with quite as much style and keen-eyed observations as The Parallax View, though.

The film, directed by All the President's Men director Alan Pakula, is a conspiracy thriller that throws viewers into an alternate version of America that really is controlled by a nefarious secret organization. In the 50 years since it was released, the film's paranoid, politically corrupt world has, unfortunately, become increasingly (and disturbingly) familiar.

The Parallax View follows Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty), an investigative reporter who — following the suspicious death of an ex-girlfriend — begins looking into a series of strange deaths connected to the assassination of a U.S. senator three years prior. Before long, he finds himself at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that not only connects to multiple high-profile political assassinations, but also an underground organization known as the Parallax Corporation, which may be responsible for all the deaths Frady has taken it upon himself to investigate. Eventually, his undercover research puts him the crosshairs of a future hit that he may or may not have the power to stop.

Despite the twisty nature of its plot, The Parallax View keeps its runtime to a tight, lean 104 minutes, and that just allows the many left turns its story takes to hit with even more force. The film's pace is measured but not slow. It builds in its intensity and speed until the viewer is left feeling just as powerless and out of their depth as Beatty's brave, headstrong protagonist. Gordon Willis' trademark, moody cinematography, meanwhile, packs the film with shadows that visually reinforce and heighten the underlying sense of paranoia that The Parallax View is trying to communicate. Together, these two aspects of the movie allow it to achieve a suffocating effect — one that makes you feel as though, like Frady, you've found yourself trapped in a world controlled by forces that are too entrenched and powerful to be thwarted.

Beyond its many technical and narrative achievements, The Parallax View is a stone-cold classic because of how perceptive and biting its ideas still feel. As Beatty's Frady investigates the Parallax Corporation, he not only discovers that the organization is responsible for a number of targeted killings, but also how it recruits its assassins. He is, specifically, forced to sit through a monitored montage of images, words, and music that grows increasingly more deranged. The sequence in question, which can be seen below, reveals how easily the meaning of certain things can be twisted in order to incite fear, disgust, or — most dangerously of all — righteous anger. Look, for instance, at how the meaning of "God" shifts in the montage from nature and prayer to government buildings, political leaders, the KKK, and burning crosses, or how "me" changes from a baby in his mother's crib to mean an American prisoner of war in Vietnam, or Lee Harvey Oswald, or a superhero who finds happiness in his guns and bullets.

At a time when it feels like so many words and ideas have either lost their weight or been twisted to no longer mean what they originally meant, it's impossible not to watch The Parallax View's midpoint montage — itself one of the most incredible sections of cinema you'll likely ever see — and not get chills. The film saw the real danger of misinformation and propaganda in a modern world and, 50 years later, we've begun to realize just how right The Parallax View was to explore it. The same goes for the film's thoughts on the toxicity of a very specific form of white male indignation that has become far too widespread and recognizable in recent decades.

The film touches on that theme in one unforgettable scene between an undercover Frady and a recruitment officer from the Parallax Corporation, who insists, "Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe it's everybody else's problem that they don't get along with you? Because, you see, the very quality that gets you in trouble is what makes you potentially invaluable." When Frady asks what "quality" his interviewer is referring to, he's told, "Your aggressiveness." It's a quietly chilling beat in a film that's full of them, and it becomes even more unnerving when you remember that Frady is being recruited during that scene to become a paid political assassin.

It's moments like the ones mentioned above that make The Parallax View such an enduring thriller. It's an expertly crafted piece of genre cinema that's overflowing with beautifully executed, nerve-shredding set pieces, while successfully evoking the feelings of paranoia, dread, political hopelessness, and anger that have become extremely familiar over the past 50 years. It's a warning as much as it is anything else — one that offers a frightening look at what might happen if everyday people really do ever lose complete control of the world around them.

The Parallax View is available to stream for free on Pluto TV.

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