1. The Lincoln Conspiracy 1977
In 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head whilst watching a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Coming as it did just at the end of the Civil War, the assassination caused intense feelings across America. John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, was trying to start a new war, in which Lincoln’s assassination would be the flash-point, thus resurrecting the Confederate cause. This, at least, is the authorised version. In The Lincoln Conspiracy, director James L Conway put forward a different theory. Instead of being the work of a few fanatical Confederates who could not accept defeat, The Lincoln Conspiracy proposed that the assassination was engineered by powerful government and business forces that opposed Lincoln’s programme of reconstruction in the South. It even suggested that the man who was so famously shot dead at Garrett’s Farm, Virginia, was not John Wilkes Booth at all, but James William Boyd, a recently released Confederate soldier who had the misfortune of having a similar sounding name to Booth.
2. Capricorn One 1978
In 1969, America sent Apollo 11 to the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on a different planet (yes, we do know that the moon is not an actual planet, but you know what we mean). The world stopped spinning, and for a brief moment, everyone looked towards the stars (no, not a star either) and watched Armstrong descend that ladder and leave his footprint in the dust of a planetary satellite. Or did he? In 1973, a self-published book, written by a man with no experience of space travel, aeronautical engineering, or well, anything, first cast doubt on Man’s Greatest Achievement. The theory that the whole moon landing was a giant hoax gained popularity in 1978 with the release of Capricorn One. The plot of that film was, ostensibly, about a faked space mission to Mars, but conspiracists soon noted that Capricorn One bore an uncanny resemblance to Apollo 11. The movie explained just how a sufficiently motivated and well-funded space agency might have pulled the hoax off. In the movie, bewildered astronauts are removed from the shuttle just as the countdown begins and driven in secret to a military airbase in the desert. The empty shuttle is launched into space, and news briefings keep the public in the dark while the astronauts fake footage of themselves in space and landing on the Red Planet. The Fake Moon Landing Conspiracy gained much ground after the release of the movie, which starred Elliot Gould and Josh Brolin (with OJ Simpson as a rather unlikely astronaut), even though, in the film, the hoax is quickly uncovered by technicians at NASA and just as quickly leaked to the press.
3. Z 1969
On May 22, 1963, Greek politician and activist Grigoris Lambrakis was struck over the head with a club by two men after delivering an anti-war speech to hundreds of supporters. His death in the hospital five days later sparked an intense protest against the right-wing Greek government and inspired thousands of Greek youths to form leftist political organisations. The investigation into Lambrakis’s death revealed a to the army and the police. Investigators and attorneys who looked into the death were relieved of their position or even jailed for a time. Eventually, under extreme pressure, the Prime Minister resigned. In 1974, the military dictatorship in Greece finally ended. Greek director Costa-Gavras used this premise for his 1969 film Z, which he offered as a modern political thriller. In the movie, an unnamed deputy is killed after a political rally—struck in the head by a passerby in a truck, dying five days later—and the subsequent investigation reveals a conspiracy that the military police and army were involved in the murder. With charges filed against several officers, it appears that justice will be served. But, alas, that is not the case. The military is ultimately able to overthrow the government in a successful coup and then proceeds to ban modern art, pop music, and even the letter “Z,” a symbol of the young Greek protest movement.
4. Nixon 1996
Like his political nemesis, John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon has been the subject of countless conspiracy theories. And the conspiracy theories about Nixon seem small in number compared to the vast number of conspiracies that Nixon himself believed were being orchestrated against him. No matter how you look at it, Richard Nixon was a paranoid man. Having scrutinized the madness surrounding the death of President Kennedy, it seemed inevitable, perhaps, that Oliver Stone would turn his attention to Nixon. Which was difficult because Nixon was a private (paranoid) man. Stone’s movie opened with a warning that the movie was “an attempt to understand the truth … based on an incomplete historical record.” The film opens with the break-in at The Watergate building then documents his strange relationships with his staff, his growing secrecy (paranoia), recordings of conversations in his office and over the phone, which he obsessed over and which, in the end, caused his downfall. Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins, was portrayed as a brilliant if not a strange (paranoid) man, slowly succumbing to his delusions induced by all the scheming he had done to obtain high office and by the conviction that others were now scheming against him. While JFK had received mixed reviews from critics, Nixon was considered a tour de force and was nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins lost out to Nicolas Cage’s Leaving Las Vegas. Had he still been alive, no doubt Nixon would have been paranoid about that too.
5. The China Syndrome 1979
Timing is everything, they say, in the movie business. It certainly was for James Bridges, who directed The China Syndrome, the story of a journalist who discovers that the nuclear power station, which has just had a meltdown, had repeatedly breached its safety procedures. While that story was entirely fictional, 12 days after the movie’s release, a nuclear disaster occurred at 3 Mile Island. Not only that, but it soon became clear that the nuclear plant had been breaching its own safety procedures for several months. Operators repeatedly manually overrode the faulty cooling systems, which should have been impossible to do. The parallels between the movie and the “incident” were chilling. The incident no doubt helped the film’s success, with both its stars—Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon—being nominated at the 1980 Oscars. Unfortunately for The China Syndrome, that was also the year of Kramer vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now, and while a nuclear meltdown is interesting, it just can’t compete with a “three-sided” love story or “the horror” of Marlon Brando in eye makeup.
6. The Constant Gardener 2005
John Le Carre is best known for his spy novels, but when he wrote The Constant Gardener, he shifted his focus to the pharmaceutical industry to find the machinations of such companies every bit as brutal as any secret service. The novel was made into a film, starring Ralph Fiennes, in 2001. Fiennes plays a British diplomat trying to solve the murder of his wife, who had been investigating a drug company that had been testing their TB drugs on poor African women. Although the film was not a reference to one particular drug scandal, many drug trials were undertaken in Africa, especially for diseases such as meningitis and HIV, where dubious consent was obtained. There are also allegations that even less ethical drug trials were conducted, where subjects were infected with polio and HIV to test vaccines, although this has never been conclusively proved. The film also resembles the plot of the recently released Dark Waters, which highlights the duplicity of an international chemical company and their careless dumping of dangerous chemicals, suggesting that the big companies are still polluting at will and infecting customers and employees with impunity.
7. The Insider 1999
Michael Mann’s 1999 film, The Insider, told the true story of one whistle-blower’s exposé of the tobacco industry. Russell Crowe played the real-life whistle-blower, Jeffrey Wigand, while Al Pacino co-starred as the documentary maker who broke the story, despite the NDA agreement that protected the company. Wigand worked as a research chemist for a tobacco company, researching cigarette production with lower levels of tobacco. He claimed that while the company was reducing the amount of nicotine, they also added other chemicals, such as ammonia, to increase the effects of nicotine, thus keeping the customer hooked. As a result of his whistle-blowing, Wigand was harassed by his employers and even received anonymous death threats. Michael Mann’s film was very well received and was nominated for 7 Academy Awards. Including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Russell Crowe), and Best Screenplay. Crowe was beaten out by Kevin Spacey and American Beauty, as was Michael Mann. American Beauty scooped Best picture and Best Director too.
8. The Big Short 2015
Not so much a conspiracy theory as a conspiracy, The Big Short documented the way that banks, stockbrokers, and all-round shysters all got in on the sub-prime mortgage gravy train and bankrupted the entire world in the process. A film about mortgages would normally be a hard sell and an even harder watch. Mortgages are not interesting. So, Adam McKay directed it like a slick heist movie. Which, in a way, it was. Like Oceans 11, but with less sex appeal and better acting (Don Cheadle’s accent. That’s all we’re going to say), The Big Short managed to explain exactly how sub-prime mortgages worked, why it was inevitably going to crash, and more importantly, how everyone in the banking world knew but were too busy getting their snouts in the trough to care. The film won multiple awards and was nominated for 5 Oscars, winning 1 for best-adapted screenplay. No bankers were harmed in the making of the movie.
9. The Manchurian Candidate 1962
The Cold War during the 1950s had created a deeply hostile and suspicious atmosphere in international relations. Intelligence agencies of every nation spied on their enemies and their allies alike. John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, released in 1962, summed up this atmosphere of mutual distrust. The film starred Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey as captured soldiers in the Korean War, subjected to brainwashing through hypnosis. Whilst Harvey returns to his dysfunctional and ruthlessly ambitious family, Sinatra begins to have strange dreams. Realizing that he has been implanted with false memories, Sinatra fears that Harvey has been brainwashed as an assassin and is being manipulated to make him shoot a presidential nominee. The film heavily references the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, the uneasy international situation, and the distrust of secret government-backed organisations, which seemed to be making up their own rules of engagement, without regard to the Geneva Convention or any other convention, for that matter.The film even hinted that disreputable foreign governments might seek undue influence in the affairs of other nations by spreading disinformation.
10. JFK 1991
There are almost as many films about the death of John F Kennedy as there are conspiracy theories about who killed him. By far the best, however, is Oliver Stone’s JFK. Stone himself described his film as “counter myth,” countering the Warren Commission’s myth about who killed the president. Stone’s film suggested that, far from a single shooter acting alone, the assassination of JFK was facilitated and encouraged by the CIA. New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, suggested that there were 3 shooters and 6 shots fired from the grassy knoll. The film was not received well by critics, though the public loved it. Many reviews focused on the conspiracy theories rather than on the merits of the film, and Stone himself was severely criticized. An Op-Ed in The Washington Post called him “a man of technical skill, scant education, and negligible conscience.” Despite the poor reviews, JFK had great popular success. However, far from settling the question of who killed Kennedy, Stone’s film merely added one more theory, or counter myth, to the very large pot.