Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2004

By James Verini

There is a prescient line of dialogue in Ron Howard’s “The Paper.” A disheveled but with-it reporter — you know the type — thinks the mob and the government are after him (it turns out he is sort of right).

When did you become so paranoid?” his skeptical editor asks.

“When they started plotting against me!” the reporter shoots back.

“The Paper” is not a conspiracy movie, like last month’s “The Manchurian Candidate” remake or, if you like, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” It is a comedy. But such distinctions no longer matter these days. Characters in all kinds of movies are talking like that reporter. From the studio blockbuster to the documentary, cabals of crooked intelligence agents, CEOs, politicos and police seem to be everywhere.

And paranoia has become, well, kind of cool.

The sine qua non of the conspiracy genre is the assassination-plot picture, and not one but two starring Sean Penn, Mr. Hollywood Cool, are to be released this winter: “The Interpreter,” directed by Sydney Pollack, who made the 1970s conspiracy classic “Three Days of the Condor,” and “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.”

Take a sampling of this summer’s fare. There was “The Bourne Supremacy,” a meditation on the dehumanizing effects of American foreign policy masquerading as a summer blockbuster in which Matt Damon, a well-coifed and sensitive amnesiac, upended the CIA; “I, Robot,” in which Will Smith, swaggering in and out of a fat-rimmed Audi, tries to warn the world of the dangers of robots; Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me,” where Anthony Mackie catches onto a bunch of scheming pharmaceutical executives and for his troubles ends up having a lot of consequence-free sex with ingenues; and “The Day After Tomorrow,” featuring a very uncool vice president character who contributes to the freezing over of Manhattan and a cool Dennis Quaid, in cool snowshoes and goggles, as the guy who tried to stop him.

Oddly, the one overt homage to the conspiracy genre, “The Manchurian Candidate,” comes off as stiff and a bit laughable, despite the microchips and flashy editing. Its classical brand of paranoia, all uniforms and lab coats, feels rather quaint.

In these frothy times, even the most rational among us subscribe to some large-scale caper. And so a banality of paranoia seems to have set in. Matters as abstract as global warming and cell regeneration have found their way into films’ smoky back rooms. Where conspiracy used to be relegated to its own genre or fringe genres, it now affects even the simplest story arcs. Paranoia has become formulaic; the man who knew too much is a stock character.

If you require any more evidence, consider this: Justin Timberlake, the former ‘N Sync frontman, will star in “Edison,” about a young reporter investigating a coterie of crooked cops.

Nor is the trend limited to the cinema. Consider the success of “The Da Vinci Code,” about a centuries-long historical conspiracy, or the brisk sales of “The 9/11 Commission Report,” a 585-page government document that reads like Tom Clancy with the juice sucked out of it. The cool-set novelist Nicholson Baker (he wrote “Vox,” which perpetually cool Bill Clinton famously gave to Monica Lewinsky) has just put out “Checkpoint,” whose narrator plans to assassinate George W. Bush. Philip Roth’s new novel, coming out in October, imagines what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh had beaten FDR in 1940 — ex post facto paranoia. It is generating rumors of a Nobel nomination for Roth. The book is called “The Plot Against America.”

Reality paves the way

Why all this stylish suspicion now? That, paradoxically, is the one question that requires no conspiracy theorizing. Just reading the morning headlines, it can feel like someone should cue up the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” for background music.

The better question is: What desires does the conspiracy movie serve?

Certainly, part of its allure is that it allows us to forget about moral ambiguities and the drab notion of collective responsibility, if only for an hour and a half: That group of suits over there — they’re to blame. “It’s a way of taking a gray world and putting it in black-and-white terms,” said Brian Helgeland, who wrote the 1997 movie “Conspiracy Theory.” The film is a template of sorts for the genre and a meditation on the pros and cons of being paranoid. “The idea that a world that’s beyond understanding can be explained away by conspiracy. Especially today — no one wants to sit down and figure out what’s going on. You start thinking about cabals, which is much more comforting than thinking about a gray world.”

Helgeland’s story is about a cab driver (thanks to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” the paranoia profession par excellence) and conspiracy theorist whose problem is that his fears are far-fetched while his paranoia, the result of secret government tests, is real. For the audience, the pitfall of conspiracy is related: We all want to believe that big, nefarious plots are possible; but we also want to dismiss the people who pursue them as loons.

Recent conspiracy movies have gotten around this problem by giving us a new breed of paranoid. No longer the Vietnam vet with a mohawk or the quivering naif. Now we have highly trained men’s men, straight from the gym and the Prada store, not stumbling onto plots but rushing at them headlong.

There has always been an undercurrent of paranoia in Hollywood. The work that ushered in the modern era of moviemaking, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” was a kind of conspiratorial retelling of post-Civil War history, in which the Ku Klux Klan, of all things, comes out as national savior. There were the outer-space-invasion and giant-insect movies of the 1950s, now dismissed as so much hysteria over such old-fashioned threats as communism and nuclear war.

The 1960s saw the occasional prescient masterpiece, such as the original “Manchurian Candidate” and “Fail-Safe.” The genre came into its own with the more subtle institutional-decay movies of the 1970s. A decade-long rash of assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate led to “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “All the President’s Men” and “Network.” A mood of powerlessness and disillusionment prevailed, and the desperation of actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford constituted their appeal.

“Ever since the Kennedy assassination there’s been enough room for paranoia everywhere,” said Sidney Lumet, who directed “Fail-Safe” and “Network.” “The years of government betrayal and government lying. There is enough going on, there is good reason for paranoia. Whether Hollywood responds to it is another question.”

In the 1990s there was a spate of conspiracy movies spurred on by computers and the Internet, biotechnology and the pervasive presence of mass media. In movies such as “The Truman Show,” “The Matrix” and “Dark City,” the suspicion is grand and overarching — reality itself is a chimera — and conspiracy begins to look cool. Where 20 years before Warren Beatty was ducking bullets in bell-bottoms, we now have Keanu Reeves dodging them in full-length tailored coats.

We’ve seen Tom Cruise, indefatigable as ever, tackle the philosophical niceties of Philip K. Dick (an author who, incidentally, believed the government was monitoring him) in “Minority Report”; and too-chill-for-chores Ethan Hawke shrug and wince at the systemic corruption of Los Angeles law enforcement in “Training Day.” Critics generally agree that the best-done conspiracy movie from the 1970s is “All the President’s Men,” which is telling, because it isn’t really a conspiracy movie at all; in substance it is closer to a documentary. This raises the question: Are conspiracy movies just a way of escaping reality, or can they be something more?

Good conspiracy movies can raise our ire and help us indict our worst impulses: greed, complacency, institutionalized thought.

Certainly we could not begin to think about the events of Sept. 11 without conspiracy theorizing. Indeed, the degree to which the hijackers’ plot, from its origins in mountain redoubts to the very plane cockpits, corresponded to the cinematic fantasist in all of us — “Right out of a movie!” was the most common refrain — was in a way an eerie justification for going to the movies not less but more.

Timothy Melley, author of “Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America,” pointed out that conspiracy movies can also provide solace. “They give us a certain amount of closure and explanatory comfort,” he said. And look at the history of great fictional characters: It is rife with nuts. Would Hamlet have been so cool if he wasn’t a grade-A paranoid? (Really, a ghost told you?). Or Sherlock Holmes? Include in the group every Alfred Hitchcock character who ends up alive, and half the characters played by the coolest man who ever lived, Humphrey Bogart. Paranoid characters exhibit the kind of quasi-religious fervor for truth most of us only wish we had. They don’t care what other people think. They figure things out.

If conspiracy has become formulaic and paranoia banal, we may have some quality — or at least nerve-racking — movies to look forward to. And if not, we can be sure of this: The characters will look good while flailing.