Seven Days in May
The Cold War may have been a time of unimaginable paranoia and fear that nearly tore our society apart, but it also provided an amazingly fertile ground for filmmakers. The very elements that made this period of our history so frightening also set the stage for anxiety and apprehension that few current circumstances could have equaled. We are now over a half a century removed from that time, and even for those of us that lived through this era, some of the memories might have faded to some degree The overall sense of deeply pervasive fear affecting our parents, neighbors and teachers remain indelibly carved into our minds. What will persist for a very long time to come are the excellent examples of cinema that came out of this clash of global superpowers. Lately, I have been revisiting various classic movies, most of which remain among my all time favorites. I noticed my choices affected by the overwhelming focus on the political structure of our government and how their relationships with the military affect the stability of the world. The movie under consideration here is one of the most tightly crafted political films of the era, ‘Seven Days in May.' This story depicts a worst case scenario where the U.S. Military feds up with the manipulation of the politicians decide upon the drastic course of action; a coupled’état.
Such military involvement is more common in other countries and is practically unheard of here in the States. We have always lived under the security that the military and civilian governments have worked in unison to achieve a common goal beneficial to the health, prosperity, and stability of the citizens. This film explores the desperate situation where this symbiosis is on the verge of complete breakdown. Like many films involving the Cold War, your perception, and understanding of the story, as well as your ability to personalize the proceedings will depend largely on whether you are of an age sufficient to recall these turbulent times. If you are too young to remember back, then this is still a film of such cinematic achievement that it will be certain to hold your attention. From the suspensefully crafted script to the perfectly paced direction brought to life through the performances of a star-studded cast, this movie is one of the best representations of the time.
Many will recognize the name of the man who turned the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II into a screenplay into a screenplay. That man was no other than Rod Serling. Throughout the fifties and sixties, he provided the distinctive voice and many of the insightful stories used in the best-known science-fiction/fantasy anthology series ever broadcast on television; ‘The Twilight Zone.' At the time of this initial release, the first season of that groundbreaking series is being prepared to enter a new technological with a Blu-ray release. Much of his writing both for the series and outside of it was concerned with clearly focused socio-political commentary. Serling had a unique narrative voice that could lay bare the perceived problems in our culture and society in an eminently entertaining fashion. The script for this film remains one of his best works. It depicts an extremely sensitive subject in a way that will make an indelible impression on the viewer as well as a lasting ability to entertain. While the themes are drastic even nightmarish Serling does a remarkable job of planting the idea that the events shown here could very well occur. He cultivates this in the mind of the audience building the suspense and tension as only a master storyteller of his caliber could manage. Once again this country is contending against an enemy whose main weapon is fear. We are engaged in a war where political and military objectives don’t always mesh making this film as topical today as it was back in 1964. This precarious position is currently greatly exacerbated by a political instability and record-breaking distrust of our new chief executive.
Directing this film was one of the best especially when it came to political intrigue; John Frankenheimer. His movie ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ remains the seminal film of the political genre. His direction is nothing short of masterful. For those not used to black and white movies study the way Frankenheimer uses shadow to reinforce the subterfuge and deceit key to the actions of the central characters. Color photography may have been a major boon to the cinema but black and white is just a different, often less used but more difficult medium for a director to work. In the hands of a master craftsman like Frankenheimer, the results achieve more with casting a shadow or a streak of light than the most director can accomplish with a full palette of colors. The minimalistic directorial style forces the viewpoint of the audience inti a myopic concentration of the characters as their respective arcs within the context of the story create and develop the story to its full potential.
Set in the midst of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world are on the verge of signing a mutual nuclear disarmament pack. President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) is under as a lot of very vocal criticism for pushing this accord. With a significant portion of the population adamantly opposed to what they see as appeasement and capitulation to the ‘Red Menace,' picket lines are formed outside the White House breaking out into fights and his popularity dipping below 30% approval. The President does have his supporters such as old friend Sen. Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien), but one of his most adamant and vocal opposition is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Scott (Burt Lancaster). Being a man of action Scott is not about to sit idly by and watch the country he dedicated his life serving destroyed, laid helpless before our enemies by what he considers to be a grievously bad political decision. One of the General’s senior aides, Col. Martin 'Jiggs' Casey (Kirk Douglas) is also a man who spent most of his adult life defending the country he loves. While he agrees in principle with the General, he has complete faith in the Constitutional foundation of the government. Slowly Jiggs begins to notice little things that just didn’t add up. The brilliance of this film is in how the clues are subtle, but Jiggs can piece them together. The first clue is when he discovers a betting pool for a horse race next Sunday. All the members of the Chefs of Staff are in on it except the Navy which coincides with the attendance in a special covert meeting. It turns out that Scott is behind a plot to isolate the President during a mock military exercise using it as a cover to overthrow the government.
This is a perfect example of the proverbial nail biter. There isn’t a single frame of this film that is wasted; everything moves smoothly along pulling in the audience for a thrill ride the likes of which are difficult to exceed. As if this isn’t enough this is a dream cast that could not be duplicated today. There are several films that play Lancaster against Douglas, but this is by far the very best. The performances here are among the most powerful and emotionally forceful ever committed to film.
The traditional movie featuring the military features their might and strategic expertise defending the country from an external menace ranging from invasion by a foreign power, deterring a terrorist attack or perhaps repelling an unbelievably powerful excursion by an extraterrestrial force. The scenario elaborated in this story is arguably the most frightening of all, an attack from within by other Americans. The potential of open warfare that sets neighbors against each other undermining the intrinsic bonds of unity and even jingoistic national pride opposed to American unity that that always been our greatest national strength. Within the context of the story, 'Jiggs' become the embodiment of that ideal. While the rebels have convinced themselves they are acting in the best interest of the nation; only 'Jiggs' retains the steadfast faith in the established constitutional foundation of our system of government.
Posted 07/30/2010 06/05/2017