Thursday, February 12, 2009

Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television and Politics

By Gordon B. Arnold. Westport, CT: Praeger, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0275994624, $44.95. 189 pages.

Review by Laurence Raw, Baskent University, Ankara, Turkey

This book considers how notions of conspiracy theory have remained ever-present in American popular culture since the Cold War. Partly this is due to events – the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 50s, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 – but the ideas have also been widely disseminated through film and television. Arnold combines political and historical narrative with analyses of several films including Suddenly (1954), Advise and Consent (1962), Chinatown (1974) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) to show how conspiracies shape some events, hide others, and ultimately dictate the course of American history since the 1940s. The first chapter – “Conspiracy Theory in the American Imagination” – argues that the theory explains “the reality of the modern world” for many people (2). Many people suspect that major institutions pay little or no heed to the individual, preferring instead to feather their own nests and seek governmental assistance if they run into trouble. This arguably caused the recent financial crisis both in America and elsewhere. Arnold contends that this belief gained currency at the end of World War II, as “Americans exhibited a new apprehension about [the power of] the Soviet Union,” and the destructive potential of the atomic bomb (13). This gave rise to the so-called “Domino Theory” which held that “if many nations succumbed to communist rule, in the not-too-distant future the United States would be surrounded by an angry sea of malicious communist countries” (17-18). Arnold continues by examining some of the films produced at that time, including Red Menace and Conspirator (both 1949), as well as Suddenly, Lewis Allen’s 1954 melodrama starring Frank Sinatra about a foiled attempt to assassinate the president. The chapter concludes with an analysis of late 50s conspiracy films including North By Northwest (1959). Arnold’s choice of films is certainly eclectic: certain overtly anticommunist works such as High Noon (1952) have been ignored, while attention could have also been given to Roman and/or Biblical epics of the period, such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Spartacus (1959), that feature an all-American hero battling against the conspiratorial forces threatening to overwhelm him. This omission highlights one of the book’s major flaws: Arnold does not offer a working definition of conspiracy theory – what it includes and omits, and whether our understanding of the term has changed over time. For example, I do not subscribe to the idea that recent fears of a so-called “Middle East plot” are in any way similar to those expressed during the McCarthy era. A glance at the ways in which both events have been reported in the media can confirm this. Nonetheless, if one treats the book as a selective account of the ways in which specific films deal with the idea of conspiracy, then there is much to recommend it. I liked Arnold’s comparison between the original Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Dr. No (also 1962). The earlier film follows Suddenly in showing how a brainwashed ex-prisoner of war (Laurence Harvey) is involved in a plot to assassinate a politician. The entire conspiracy is attributed to the communists, “an enemy that can deceive and control the people” (52). While Dr. No deals with similar themes, its tone “is not cynical. . . the problems [posed by the communists] can and will be solved and. . . potentially destructive technologies can be harnessed for the greater good” (57). Likewise, Arnold draws a suggestive link between Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (also 1974) as responses to the Watergate crisis. Coppola reflects “the growing sense of alienation that Americans came to feel in the wake of a divisive and sometimes violent decade” (94). Pakula returns to the theme of assassination and how the finger of suspicion can be pointed at anyone, particularly if they dare to question the system (96). Arnold subsequently shows how Chinatown, ostensibly a 1970s film noir, shows how “unknowing people can be manipulated and become involved in conspiratorial schemes they know nothing about” (99). In a concluding paragraph to the book, Arnold suggests that while the conspiracy theory metaphor continues to influence American life, it is no longer shocking to suggest that “complex forces . . . influence and shape the world” (172). This, he believes, is due to the frequency with which the metaphor has been used in the media, which has denuded it of significance. The book left me feeling much the same: while analyses of individual films are often interesting, the lack of an overall theoretical framework left me wondering why conspiracy theory should have remained so fundamental to American popular culture in the past six decades.

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