Saturday, December 31, 2005

Seven Days in May

President Jordan Lyman (Frederick March): You got something against the English language, Colonel?
Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas): No, sir.
Lyman: Then speak it plainly, if you will.
Casey: I'm suggesting, Mr. President, there's a military plot to take over the government. This may occur some time this coming Sunday.

I woke up this morning, a Saturday, to snow flurries, which made it easy to decide not to go out and run. Flipping around on my new gazillion-channel TV, I stumbled onto John Frankenheimer's excellent 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May, which I hadn't seen, just beginning on a channel called @MAX. To get HBO and Showtime on demand from Time Warner, you've got to get channels with names like "@MAX." According to the Cinemax website, "Cutting-edge and connected viewers will find that @MAX has what it takes to keep them interested. @MAX offers contemporary movies, movies with attitude and movies with new ideas for entertainment." Fill in your own mockery of the marketing idiots at Cinemax.

What is so staggering about this movie is the strength of the arguments Frankenheimer and screenwriter Rod Serling (yes, that Rod Serling) give to the right-wing junta that threatens take over the government of the United States. Burt Lancaster brings the full weight of his almost supernatural charisma and moral righteousness to the power-mad Joint Chiefs Chairman General James Scott, who leads a coût d'état against the equally excellent Frederick March's pacifist President Jordan Lyman (whose physical resemblance here to Lyndon Johnson is eerie). Compare this with the weirdly sinister, wooden Bruce Willis in the similarly themed (and otherwise provocative and prescient) 1998 film The Seige, who comes off as a mere nut-job.

Ava Gardner, Lancaster's tragic, boozy, broken-hearted ex-mistress, is heart-breakingingly sexy/beautiful/talented/vulnerable. OK, not a news flash. Her best line in this movie, "I'll make you two promises: a very good steak, medium rare, and the truth, which is very rare," is delivered to Kirk Douglas, who is in the process of manipulating her to get personally compromising information that could bring down Lancaster, his boss. (This is 1964, when an affair still meant something. Ultimately, March's President Jordan doesn't use the information, taking the high road instead.) Douglas is terrific as the career marine forced to choose between his loyalty to his superior officer and to democracy.

Another priceless line, delivered by the great Edmund O'Brien (as "a dipso senator from Georgia"): "I'm going to phone the White House. Tell you what, friend, when this is over you can take off your girdle and have yourself a real good cry. Say, uh, you got a dime to stop a revolution with?"

The movie also features an uncredited John Houseman as a flip-flopping admiral (It would nine years before Houseman's next movie role, in The Paper Chase, brought him fame as an actor to match his already legendary status as a theater producer) and a slimy cabinet secretary named Christopher Todd, which happens to be the name of one of my best friends and roommates from college. (The real Christopher Todd is decidedly unslimy -- a goofy, perpetually grinning, chess-and-basketball-playing special education teacher in rural South Carolina.)

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