Cover-Ups and Conspiracies: Big and Small

This week, I watched three movies that all dealt with cover-ups and conspiracies of some kind. It all began with a random showing of The China Syndrome on Antenna TV and ended with an old TV movie that has been inspiring me since I first saw it back in the day. In between, was a very odd blast from the past, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First up:

The China Syndrome

Jane Fonda stars as a fluff TV reporter who inadvertently witnesses a nuclear plant accident while filming a mundane piece of this new form of energy. Michael Douglas plays her cameraman who has the presence of mind to keep the camera rolling, picking up all of the action (but none of the sound) from the control room where Jack Lemon and friends are having a meltdown of their own.

What makes the accident particularly realistic and frightening is that it’s caused by human error. A stuck gauge convinced Lemon that there’s too much water in the reactor, so he releases the water only to find that he’s drained all the necessary liquid leaving them only moments away from a catastrophe. The title is based on the idea that the meltdown would be so hot, it would burn down through the Earth’s crust and all the way to China.

When Fonda brings the story to her boss in the newsroom, she’s sent away and Douglas is forced to steal back the footage — their only proof of real danger — in order to keep the whole incident from being buried. From that point on, the two work to find a way to bring the story to the public, putting their own lives at great risk. Eventually, Lemon agrees to blow the whistle which leads to one of the most tense scenes in the movie.

What’s really frightening here is that only days after the movie was released, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant had a partial meltdown that was caused by human error. Scary stuff. But Saturday Night Live made comedy gold out of the movie with their version which they called “The Pepsi Syndrome.”

The Parallax View

My quest for cover-ups led me to a classic that I had never seen before. The Parallax View is from 1974 and it stars Warren Beatty as an investigative reporter who stumbles into a conspiracy involving political assassinations.

At the start of the film, Paula Prentiss and William Daniels head to the top of the Seattle Space Needle to cover a Senator’s party. The Senator is shot and the shooter makes a spectacular fall off the needle’s disc (shades of Dark Angel). Fast forward three years and Prentiss runs to Beatty saying that her life is in danger because everyone who was at that party has died a mysterious death. He doesn’t believe her until she ends up on a slab, too. From there, he sets out to discover what it was everyone saw that day that they didn’t know they saw and it leads him to the Parallax Corporation. Seems these guys are in the business of brainwashing everyday Joe’s to turn them into cold-blooded killers and Beatty, with his antisocial personality, fits the requirements to a T.

In the film, Beatty is required to watch a short film made up of photo slides and words such as Mother, Happiness, Enemy, Me. The slideshow fills the screen (I imagine it would have been very impressive in the theater) and you, the viewer, also get bombarded with emotionally evocative images that increase in speed as they grow more ominous. As I watched the film, I noticed a variety of very familiar nude shots. Photos so familiar, I had to find the montage on YouTube so I could slow it down and take a look and sure enough, I saw what I thought I saw.

Here’s the one non-nude photo from the montage. Alias Smith and Jones fans will recognize this as part of star Ben Murphy’s infamous Viva Magazine spread. Sort of Cosmo meets Playboy, Viva ran erotic photoshoots that had a story to them and this one intrigued me so much when I saw it that I wrote and published a short story based on the pics. I also had an email exchange with the photographer who was then just starting out, but is now well-known. So yes, I’m obsessed with this photo shoot and couldn’t believe it when I saw it in the movie. The other scattered scenes are nudes, so be aware if you plan on clicking the link to watch the montage.

Overall, I found The Parallax View to be a little clumsy. Great plot, but Beatty is hardly believable as an investigative journalist. The film is also very uneven. The first half is like a 70’s action film while the second half settles into a more cerebral thriller style. Still. It’s a classic and it’s worth watching if you like a good political cover-up.

Dying Room Only

Remember the TV movies of the 70’s? Trilogy of Terror, Duel, Night the Bridge Fell Down? Now you can own them, thanks to the Warner Archives burn on demand program. This week, I got one of my all-time favorite TV movies, Dying Room Only. I saw this film when I was a kid and it has stuck with me all these years, inspiring more than a few creepy moments in my own fiction.

Cloris Leachman stars as a typical American housewife who is at the end of a very long roadtrip with her husband, Dabney Coleman. They’re driving through the desert, bickering over a side trip that cost them half a day when they pass a cafe / motel in the middle of nowhere. They stop to get a cool drink and use the pay phone (long before cell phone days) and encounter a belligerent cafe owner played by Ross Martin and a scary, redneck patron played by Ned Beatty. (And yes, two Beattys in one week)

Cloris goes to the bathroom and when she returns, her husband is gone. At first, she assumes he’s in the bathroom, but as the minutes tick by she starts to realize that something is wrong. From there on in, the movie ratchets up the tension as Cloris realizes that she’s now a woman, alone, in the desert with two men who could turn her into Sunday’s hamburgers.

What makes this movie really amazing is that 90% of the film is just the three actors in a small space and it’s never boring. Camera angles, music, the dingy decor, all help build up the tension. Cloris is excellent as she alternates between tough and on the verge of tears. Martin is spot on with his emotionless, deadpan delivery and you just want to slap Beatty from the first moment you see him on screen. It’s proof that you don’t need a complex plot to pull in the viewers. This is plain old, good storytelling and it’s as watchable today as it was back then.

So there you have it. Two big cover-ups and one very small conspiracy that proves the power of a simple story and good actors.

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