Seven Days in May (1964)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

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Seven Days in May is a political thriller set in the imagined future of 1970.  Shot in 1963, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film discusses the threat of nuclear war at a time when that threat was very real.  Wait, that’s today.

Before we meet President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) we meet the people protesting outside of the White House.  The anger is in regards to Lyman’s agreement to a treaty with the Soviets in which both sides agree to nuclear disarmament.  President Lyman questions the plan because of the strong opposition to it, most notably expressed by General Scott (Burt Lancaster), a man who argues that the Soviets can’t be trusted and the only way to keep America safe is through the threat of America’s own weapons.

When Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas), who works under Scott, uncovers a plan to stage a coup, he warns the President despite disagreeing with his stance on the issue.  The film then concerns the “seven days” the President and his close allies have to stave off Scott’s coup.  The title also alludes to the thirteen days in October (1962) which brought the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war.

The idea of the film is that we are this close to self-destruction, and it’s man’s own unpredictability that could so quickly cause our demise.  In a lengthy monologue with about twenty minutes remaining in the movie, President Lyman addresses his closest advisors, saying that the real threat is not General Scott but the nuclear age as a whole…

“The enemy’s an age – a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it’s a General Scott.”

Everything in the film builds to this moment, and everything after it feels relatively unimportant.  The movie has mad its point, and the loose ends of the plot merely have to be tied together.

Scott’s coup is found out and suppressed, and Lyman remains President.  The two men share a private standoff, and Scott has one last showdown with Casey as well.  They all say their piece, eloquently and passionately, and the film ends.

As the story opens, President Lyman seems to be the bad guy while Scott must surely represent all that is good.  Maybe that’s just because we initially identify with the people protesting the President while Burt Lancaster (Scott) is often cast as the good guy.  Lancaster starred in director John Frankenheimer’s  Birdman of Alcatraz as a felon who demanded our empathy.  In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral he played lawful lawn Wyatt Earp, and I guess he played Jim Thorpe too.  The point is I see Lancaster as a shortcut, cast most of the time to play the wholesome hero.

From today’s vantage point, many of the opening images to the film set the President up to be the villain.  First he resembles Lyndon Johnson, and the protestors call to mind the image of the Vietnam War protests.  And yet, those are important historical memories that didn’t take place until after the film was released.  The movie, in fact, was filmed before Kennedy’s assassination.

Maybe the movie was ahed of itself, but it does hold the President in high regard, something a movie made only a few years later probably wouldn’t have done.  So I guess Seven Days in May was made at a time when government was still sacred.  It wasn’t until soon after that the war in Vietnam grew, public unrest expanded and the presidency was tainted by Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

This story seems most inspired by the proud work of the Kennedy administration to calm the nuclear threat during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The film celebrates a certain level-headedness that nearly got us into war while cautioning future generations to avoid the same threat.

This is a proud film, an optimistic one even.  It plays with the same images you see in later government films, only the corrupt characters are the ones fighting for power, not the ones already in power.

What I suppose I admire about Seven Days in May is the frankness with which the ostensible good guy and bad guy square off.  One of them believes in the Constitution more than the other, and they both listen to each other’s views, even while remaining steadfast in their own.  President Lyman doesn’t wish to fight Scott, recognizing Scott’s undying patriotism.  He tells him to go out there and run for office if he feels so strongly.

The film is concerned with two men who want what’s best for their country.  They both see themselves as the hero and the other as a dangerous threat.  The story can just be boiled down to two perspectives, that we should agree to disarm or that we should build up our military arsenal in case of attack.

The story sides less with the President’s viewpoints than it does with due process.  Scott’s real crime wasn’t what he was fighting for but how he went about fighting for it.

The film seems to agree with the President’s disarmament policy, but it mostly laments the situation they (and we) find themselves in.  The threat of nuclear war brings out the worst in people, both fear and greed and what have you.  It’s a frightening scenario, living so close to the edge, but the President’s final speech expresses a very direct sentiment that all will be okay.

The closing speech is so on the nose to some degree that it feels tacked on.  The real message of the film is in that earlier monologue I quoted and in the showdowns between the various characters with opposing perspectives.  The plot almost feels lonely stitched together only to justify these monologues.

Having been shot in 1963 and set in 1970, it’s easy to forget that some of the technology in this film was quite ahead of its time.  There is a video conferencing system, not unlike Skype as well as a series of wall-length tv screens like the flat screens we have today.  The detail stands out but not enough to overwhelm the story’s message.  It wouldn’t be difficult for the set design to propel this into Jetson’s territory.

I guess my takeaway from the film is just that nuclear weapons are dangerous, they are a sensitive subject, people feel threatened and fear leads to poor decisions and we should believe in democracy.  People want to feel safe, and when they don’t they turn to someone who promises to rile things up even if such riling up could be dangerous.

Up Next: Mystic River (2003), Stagecoach (1939), I’m Carolyn Parker (2011)

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