Sunday 8 December 2019

Movie Review: Seven Days In May (1964)

A Cold War political thriller, Seven Days In May uses a tense military takeover scenario in the United States as an avenue to explore themes of democracy, loyalty and nationalism in the shadow of a global conflict.

It's the early 1970s, and U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) is facing severe criticism and protests for pushing ahead with a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviet Union. He believes the agreement to be the only pathway to peace, but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) believes the President is severely undermining national security.

Scott's right-hand man Colonel "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas) picks up cryptic clues suggesting Scott is planning a coup d'etat within a few days, using a covert military unit funded without appropriate authority and assembled and trained at a secret base near El Paso, Texas.

Jiggs takes his evidence to Lyman, who believes enough to investigate. He dispatches his chief aid Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) to interrogate a Navy commander stationed in the Mediterranean, trusted Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O'Brien) heads to El Paso, and Jiggs approaches Scott's former mistress Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) to dig up potentially useful dirt. But with the clock ticking, finding hard evidence against the plotters will prove a challenge.

With the Cold War at its peak after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Seven Days In May joined Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe in a trio of 1964 films exploring various what-ifs of the conflict. Based on a novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel with a script by none other than Rod Serling, Seven Days In May delves into the perils of harbouring trust in a peace process, and at least as a starting point comes closest to predicting the actual course of negotiations eventually pursued by the United States and the Soviet Union.

The film uses the Cold War as background stage set. The focus is on the erosion of trust in a President's actions at the highest levels, and the potential for a cabal of generals and politicians to hide in plain sight while plotting a governmental takeover. Serling places intrigue and evidence gathering at the forefront of the story, Seven Days In May not featuring a single act of serious violence despite the threat of massive military and political upheaval. Director John Frankenheimer luxuriates in choreographing deep focus black and white scenes, turning the nation's most secretive boardrooms and offices into cerebral battlegrounds.

Along with star Kirk Douglas, Frankenheimer was instrumental in pulling the project together, and he assembled a dream cast, adding Lancaster, March, Gardner, O'Brien and Balsam, all in good form and tackling grim roles with requisite seriousness. And the film passes the baton around the lead roles at regular intervals, Douglas, Gardner and then March taking turns in the spotlight, with Lancaster a menacing presence throughout.

By the end March rolls back the years and emerges as a dominant presence, his scenes opposite Douglas (revealing the conspiracy threads) and Lancaster (a tense confrontational showdown) both mesmeric. Serling's script may be faulted for underplaying the President's hand and authority as the climax approaches, but also allows for the epic interpersonal clashes to play out.

As the race against time to unmask the conspiracy hurtles towards the designated hour of action, the film grabs opportunities to debate the merits of pursuing peace. General Scott cannot fathom how a powerful ideological foe can ever be trusted to disarm and has the public on his side, while Lyman, with sinking approval ratings, is convinced negotiating a treaty from a position of strength is the only path to a non-ruinous future. It's an eternal warmongers versus peacemakers polemic, and sometimes nothing less than the future of a powerful nation hangs in the balance.

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