Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Seven Days in May (1964) - John Frankenheimer

It's the height of the Cold War. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union has the U.S. military on edge. When an unpopular president (Fredric March) negotiates a nuclear arms treaty with the enemy, he incurs the ire of the military and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who see him as soft, and playing politics with the nation's security. Its hard line chairman is General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), a popular hero who considers the president a traitor. Scott's aide, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kurt Douglas), comes across inexplicable and unsettling information. Convinced a military coup is afoot, he takes his suspicions to the White House. The president calls together his most trusted advisers to get to the bottom of matter and, if necessary, stop the coup before it is too late.
Fredric March as President Jordan Lyman

Seven Days in May is a fine follow-up for Director John Frankenheimer, fresh off his critically acclaimed The Manchurian Candidate. As a political thriller, it succeeds even better than its predecessor because the plot is considerably more plausible. Where Manchurian featured an over-the-top U.S. Senator and his wife hell-bent on securing the presidency through any means possible, wrapping itself in the paranoia of the Cold War period, Seven Days in May keeps it characters firmly rooted in reality. It more accurately captures the sense of foreboding and uncertainty of the age, when kids were drilled at school to duck their heads under their desks in the event of an atomic bomb attack, and Russia tried to site missiles in Cuba.

The film, based on a best-selling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, is a tense thriller with great pacing, a hallmark of Frankenheimer. The plot unfolds innocently enough; Colonel Jiggs stumbles unto what ostensibly is a betting pool among certain officers for the upcoming Preakness Stakes. The junior officer who brought it to his attention is suddenly transferred. Jiggs hears of a secret military base out west, where disturbing amounts of military resources are being housed and directed. None of it makes sense. Once he takes his suspicions to the president, the pace picks up.

Because the cast and script are so good, it's easy to get caught up in the action. Not surprisingly, March is particularly effective as the beleaguered president, willing to sacrifice his political future for what he believes is in the nation's best interest. He looks and reasons like a president, at least how we might wish. His character encapsulates the message of the film when he says it's the nuclear age, and not a person or group that is the enemy. "It has killed man's faith in his ability to influence what happens to him."

A winner of two Best Actor Oscars, March gives another appropriately emotional performance, looking older than his 67 years. His face is clouded in anguish. You believe this man is under crushing pressure, and you root for him to fend off his opponents. He has two terrific scenes. The first in the living quarters of the White House, in a tense confrontation with Scott. Here we have two men, diametrically opposed and passionate, each with the firm belief that he is right.

"Then by God, run for office."
Scott: And if you want to talk about your oath of office, I'm here to tell you face to face, President Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles - when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.
President Lyman: And that would be General James Mattoon Scott, would it? I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania, or simply cry.
Scott: James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification. But he does have an abiding interest in the survival of this country.  
President Lyman: Then, by God, run for office. You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country - why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell-bent to protect?

The second scene is a press conference at the end of the film, with some of Knebel and Charles' strongest writing. President Lyman offers the nation a hopeful message, though an ironic one, considering that shortly after the film's release the United States found itself mired in Vietnam.

"There's been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander, because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom."
Lancaster and Douglas

Frankenheimer surrounded himself with a solid supporting crew. Jerry Goldsmith provided the effective score, suspenseful and dramatic; and Edward Boyle served as set director. Boyle was nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film. He knew his stuff, having won four years earlier for The Apartment.

Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone penned the taut screenplay. He did a great job translating the book to the screen, making you wish he had done more film work. For dramatic effect, Serling and Frankenheimer made Scott more publicly blatant in his criticism of the president and reduced the involvement of one character in the novel who adds little to the story, a Secret Service agent. Both decisions enhance the story.

Douglas is great as Jiggs, giving one of his most understated performances, confused and, at the end, shocked that the man he so admired could disgrace his uniform. What makes his position so compelling is that he agrees with Scott; he tells the president that the Russians are playing them for suckers. But he understands the role of the military in a civilian government, and though a whistle-blower, he is the true patriot of the film.

Frankenheimer makes good use of closeups, showing the strain on the face of the characters. The best occurs as Jiggs is first relating his suspicions to the president. Lyman feels the officer is beating around the bush and asks him if he "has something against the English language." He tells him to speak plainly. The camera pulls in on Douglas as he finally gets his suspicions off his chest. It's a dramatic moment.

Another great pleasure is the supporting cast. O'Brien (nominated for an Oscar here), Martin Balsam, Andrew Duggan, George Macready, and Ava Gardner are each terrific, shinning in short screen time. O'Brien is the president's good friend, an alcoholic Senator from South Carolina. His accent is a little over the top but his emotions are spot on. His character is involved in the one true action sequence in the film. On a fact-finding mission, he finds himself held incognito at the secret military base, where his captors try to ply him with alcohol. When a friend of Jiggs shows up (Duggan), together they attempt an escape. Considering the amount of armed solders present, it stretches the imagination that they would succeed, but this is a film more about ideas than action, so it's easy to overlook this slight flaw.

The character Clark helps illustrate something else that is surely true about any presidency--it can be an incredibly lonely job. When the most difficult decisions are required, it comes down to one man. He may have a few friends and close advisers he can talk things over with, but in the end the responsibility is his alone. March and O'Brien's relationship brings this front and center.

Edmond O'Brien as Senator Raymond Clark.

There is another small flaw in the film and the novel. In each, the president has the chance to stop Scott through blackmail: in the novel with evidence of income tax fraud, and in the film with a pack of love letters. (The film's approach here works far better than that presented in the novel.) That in neither case is this strategy needed in the end doesn't matter. The president refuses to employ such unsavory tactics. But that decision at the time defies logic as any man faced with similar circumstances would use whatever means necessary to stop a coup. Moreover, it portrays Lyman as being too good and pious, having too much integrity, a clear liberal bias of the authors.

In the end, the film presents hope, and a firm message that democracy will stand triumphant.

Frankenheimer and Lancaster collaborated on seven films. This is one of their best.

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