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Seven Days In May

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Seven Days In May

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas
Director: John Frankenheimer
Rated: NR
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: February 1964
Genres: Classic, Drama, Mystery

*Also starring: Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Martin Balsam, George Macready, Whit Bissell, Hugh Marlowe, John Houseman

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

For many people in the world (and USA, at least before the last year's unpleasantness) the outcome of 2000 US presidential elections was nothing short of coup d'etat. Various historians and conspiracy theorists may find some other examples of American government being based on something different from the will of American people, but USA was so far fortunate to be spared from the events usually described by the phrase "coup d'etat" - bunch of people in uniforms bringing down legitimate government and taking the power into their own hands. However, it doesn't mean that it can't happen, and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, 1964 political thriller directed by John Frankenheimer, dealt with that disturbing possibility.

Plot of the film, based on the best-selling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, is set during the Cold War. President Jordan Lyman (played by Fredric March) has signed the nuclear disarmament treaty with USSR only to helplessly watch his noble deed turning into political disaster at home - defence industry in shambles, high unemployment and multitudes of congressmen and senators screaming bloody murder under pressure of their constituencies. General James Mattoon Scott (played by Burt Lancaster), charismatic and popular head of Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the other hand, is passionately opposed to the treaty, viewing it as an ultimate betrayal of national security. While the debate intensifies and Lyman's poll numbers continue to drop, Scott and the rest of military establishment are preparing for seemingly routine manoeuvres, but Scott's aide Marine Colonel James "Jiggs" Casey (played by Kirk Douglas) finds many strange details about that particular exercise. After a while, Casey comes to the disturbing conclusion about Scott preparing military take- over of the government. He informs the President about his doubts, but Lyman decides not to act against potential conspirators before gathering enough evidence. Instead he sends his most trusted associates to investigate, but they have only few days before the exercise.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is the perfect embodiment of the phrase "they don't make them anymore". Made four decades ago, this political thriller is in many ways different from the contemporary examples of the genre. It doesn't feature a single shootout or car chase, and it completely relies on drama as the only source of excitement. Instead of having single hero that would single-handedly destroy vast and seemingly all-powerful conspiracy, this film uses more realistic scenario with many different people who are sometimes as rootless as the conspiracy. Finally, both sides in the conflict are portrayed as patriots deeply convinced that their cause is just, thus creating unpleasant dilemmas for the characters caught between their camps. Because of that, moral alignment of the characters, as well as their motivations, is blurred and the film relies on excellent actors in order to portray their inner dilemmas that might be as nerve-racking as the external struggle depicted in this film. Good example is the character of "Jiggs" - an officer who admires General Scott and shares his position on nuclear disarmament but stops short of going against Constitution. Kirk Douglas is excellent in this role, displaying whole variety of conflicting emotions. Burt Lancaster, one of the acting giants of the era who used to be Douglas' partner in many films, is excellent as general who remains patriotic and brave despite taking part in the treacherous action. Fredric March is also very good in the role of weak president forced to find statesmanship qualities in the worst occasion imaginable, while Edmond O'Brien provides very effective comic relief as alcoholic Georgia senator.

Being the product of its time might not be such a good thing for SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, because modern audience, especially those who grew up after the end of Cold War, might not understand the dilemma that used to haunt superpower leaders in that period - whether to keep the peace by building more and more bombs and wait for the freak accident starts unstoppable cycle of mutually assured destruction or to disarm and stake the survival of the whole nation on the other side's good faith. This dilemma is well-presented in this film, allowing both sides to plead their case, and many people would be tempted to side with General Scott when he argues that mere peace of paper, whether a treaty or Constitution, is worthless when it comes to guarding peace and national security. Such sentiments might be found even today in the aftermath of WTC bombing - a lot of people are prepared to sacrifice constitutional liberties for the sake of security. Unfortunately, when it comes to the resolution of this dilemma, Rod Serling, screenwriter best known for his work on TWILIGHT ZONE, uses unconvincing combination of deus ex machina and pro-Constitution sermon. This weak ending makes a huge and unpleasant contrast to the otherwise realistic set-up of the whole film. The unconvincing element of the film is the subplot involving General Scott's former mistress, obviously introduced only create role for Ava Gardner in film where all major characters happen to be men. Finally, the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith is also disappointing compared with his future triumphs. SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, despite being within the limits of the time when it was made, still represents a very good, thought-provoking film that is more related to our times than we would like.

Copyright 2002 Dragan Antulov

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