Movie Reviews 405 – Seven Days in May (1963)

These are trying times when the president of the United States makes foreign policy changes on a whim, backs them up with preposterous untruths and delivers them incoherently on social media. More troubling is the evident pandering to a brutal Soviet dictator willing to openly exterminate any democratic challengers, and one who for all intents and purposes manipulated the election that delivered the US presidency via social media manipulation.

But what do you do? There are legal means that are not only available, but that have been used before to remove a president, if not by enacting impeachment, having them leave the post voluntarily before the inevitable (I’m looking at you “Tricky Dicky”!). But impeachment takes time and just like any other legal case require a substantial burden of proof. What happens when such a powerful figure puts the country and the world in actual danger and you don’t have the luxury of time to stop the threat?

Director John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, based on the best selling novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel, came at the height of the cold war’s nuclear proliferation and pits a maniacal general with White House ambitions against a president about to sign a controversial disarmament treaty.

With mere days to go before the agreement is in place and believing that the erosion of the country’s nuclear deterrent will be followed by an inevitable Russian invasion, Air Force general Scott (Burt Lancaster) secretly aligns all the brass of the other defence agencies to stage a coup by assassinating the President (Fredric March). One of his aides, Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) comes across some bizarre coded messages that appear to be innocent petty betting between Scott and all the other generals on the upcoming Preakness Stakes horse race which he laughs off at first. But when he brings up the betting eyebrows begin to raise and he subsequently learns that a newly created unit, ECOMCON, is non-existent as far as official channels are concerned. While he cannot prove beyond a doubt Scott and the generals plans for an overthrow, he presents his findings to the President and his aide (Martin Balsam) and hope that they believe him.

While I have seen Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, another film political thriller wherein the position of the President is manipulated by foreign influence, this was my first screening of this film, but certainly not my last. Scripted by none other than the brilliant Rod Serling the film wastes little time on such things as gauging who is on one side or the other and whether or not the threat is real. Instead it builds intense suspense on uncovering all the facets of the staging of the coup and how the treat can dealt with, which is hardly a simple matter. The only slightly ineffective plot device (a red herring really) was the inclusion of Scott’s mistress (Ava Gardner) being dragged into the affair. But even that angle, while unconvincing, is masterfully scripted by Serling (or perhaps the novel’s authors). The point of patriotism is front and center, especially by the fact that Casey himself disagrees with the President’s stance on the treaty.

Eerily John F. Kennedy, a fan of Frankenheimer’s Candidate and this novel, accommodated the filming of segments in front of the actual White House, only to be assassinated himself and never lived to see the film. If that weren’t enough, I have this film on a Burt Lancaster box set which includes three other films, one being Executive Action, a film with a plot about carrying out the JFK assassination.

Fantastic film with a stellar cast even beyond those I’ve mentioned. Now I’m not in any way condoning this plot as a means to get rid of a certain clown currently occupying the oval office but at least it’ll take your mind off the sad state of affairs for two hours.

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