Everyone loves a conspiracy, don’t they? Hollywood, especially, thrives off them. Sometimes they make them up and sometimes they’re even part of the conspiracy itself, but, when there are so many great conspiracy theories and cover ups to choose from in real life, its easy to see why they don’t often bother.
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Conspiracy movies always involve a Good Guy and some Dark Forces (usually represented by corrupt businesses and/or self-serving and secret government agencies with far too much autonomy and far too little regulation). In other words, the alphabet agencies, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, and anyone who deals with money.
In the interests of Truth, Transparency, and standing against the latest attack on free speech from Google who is now banning all conspiracy related content, we have put our feet up, watched a load of films and come up with the ten greatest conspiracy movies based on real-life conspiracy theories.
Pass the popcorn 🍿 and enjoy.
10 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 feeling 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 to have a similar sounding name to Booth.
The film, which starred Bradford Dillman as the unfortunate Booth, was largely ignored on its release in 1977, but has helped to increase the speculation on the death of a president ever since, and it continues to spark debate.
9 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, for a brief moment, as 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 air base 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), despite the fact, that, in the film, the hoax is quickly uncovered by technicians at NASA, and just as quickly leaked to the press.
That point seems to have been missed.
8 Syriana, 2005
Conspiracy theories flourish whenever money or power, or money and power are involved. Some industries, therefore, are conspiracy theory magnates. Take oil, for example. There are very few (by which we mean none) films about affable oil magnates engaged in ethical business practices. But there are a fair few of the other sort.
Take Syriana, for example. Directed by and starring George Clooney, Syriana has been described as a ‘geopolitical thriller’ (we don’t know either). Based, loosely, of course, on the memoirs of a retired CIA agent, who may, or may not, have exaggerated his accounts in the full knowledge that the CIA would neither confirm nor deny, the film examines the global influence of the oil industry.
The writers conducted interviews with leading oil executives as background for the movie, but agreed to change names, not only of the executives named in the CIA memoirs but also the country in which the drama plays out – Syriana being a name which means ‘Kind of Like Syria, but Not Actionable.
The film could certainly be described as ‘ambitious’. It was shot on locations on 5 continents, and featured 3 intersecting story-lines – a few oil executives, a CIA hit-man and a load of migrant oil workers, as well as the battle for control of oilfields which resulted in bribery, corruption and murder.
The film, which featured dozens of cameos by Hollywood stars, was generally well received, though many found its plot just a little too intricate, but it won Clooney an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
7 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 very large number 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 and goes on to document his strange relationships with his staff, his growing secrecy (paranoia), obsessive 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 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.
6 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 their own safety procedures for a number of 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 nuclear meltdown is interesting, it just can’t compete with a ‘three sided’ love story or ‘the horror’ of Marlon Brando in eye makeup.
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5 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, only 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 who 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 in order 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.
The Constant Gardener did win multiple awards, however, including an Oscar for Rachel Weisz.
So there’s that.
4 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 were reducing the amount of nicotine, they were also adding other chemicals, such as ammonia, in order 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 by Kevin Spacey, and American Beauty, as was Michael Mann.
American Beauty scooped Best picture and Best Director too.
3 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.
2 The Manchurian Candidate, 1962
The Cold War during the 1950s had created a deeply hostile and suspicious atmosphere in international relations. Secret services 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 referenced heavily 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 regards to the Geneva Convention, or any other convention.
The film even hinted that disreputable foreign governments might seek undue influence in the affairs of other nations by spreading disinformation.
1 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.
If you think we’ve left any great movies off the list, let us know in the comments below!
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