In a recent article for Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson explored how anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists have found one another to create the perfect storm for Covid-19 to lay waste to the United States. Believing in conspiracy theories is nothing new. According to Dickinson, there are records of these paranoiac thoughts tracing back to the early 19th century. But as more and more Americans are “red-pilled,” the term for being indoctrinated as a follower of QAnon, we are seeing a sizeable portion of our population believing some pretty crazy notions, ranging from folks thinking Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a pizza shop to the idea that the coronavirus vaccine is filled with microchips.

We live in an epoch not too dissimilar to the early ‘70s. A long-running, unpopular war is ending. A president is in trouble for committing acts that go against his sworn oath. The country is exhausted from years of violence and racial strife. In many ways, Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film, The Parallax View, feels closer to reality now than it did upon release. The movie follows journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) who slowly begins to realize something is not quite right after a senator is assassinated at the Space Needle in Seattle. Although he was denied access to the event, a journalist friend of his named Lee (Paula Prentiss), saw the senator’s murder. A few months later she comes to Joe, shaken and terrified. Everyone who witnessed the murder, save Lee herself and one other person, have died under mysterious circumstances. Soon, Lee is also dead, propelling Joe into action.

Joe soon comes across a shadowy organization called the Parallax Corporation, a company that recruits people with sociopathic tendencies, allowing powerbrokers to hire them to pull off dirty jobs like assassinations. Joe decides to go deep undercover, forging his identity so the Parallax Corporation will recruit him. It’s an idea that’s almost as sound as Peter Breck going undercover as a patient at a mental institution in Shock Corridor.

Pakula, best known for All the President’s Men (1976), is no stranger to films fraught with paranoia. His breakthrough, Klute (1971), which stars Jane Fonda as a call-girl helping with a missing persons case, is part of what is considered Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy,” rounded out with President’s Men and Parallax. Pakula isn’t the flashiest director but you can see his use of the camera and setting of a scene as the direct antecedent of Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) feels cut from the same cloth as Parallax.

Unlike today, most of the people in The Parallax View don’t believe that a shadowy organization exists that kills for money. Through a series of tense set pieces, including Joe battling for his life as a dam opens and another on an airplane with a ticking bomb in its undercarriage, we slowly learn the terrifying truth about the Parallax Corporation. Beatty is understated in his role, in full throttle now that Bonnie and Clyde (1967) minted him a movie star. His shaggy Joe Frady, dressed in a muted brown sports coat and jeans, seems aloof to all the chaos happening around him, yet he’s drawn to Parallax Corporation. Does he really want to break the story or has Joe been brainwashed? Is he in over his head, crossing deep towards a point of no return?

In the movie’s creepiest scene, Joe must watch the Parallax Corporation’s indoctrination video, a collection of images and words that scramble the notion of self, parents, country, God, happiness and enemy. Very similar to the video Stanley Kubrick uses to eliminate Alex’s violent tendencies (taking away Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as well) in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Pakula doesn’t cut to Beatty during the montage. Instead, we witness the film in full frame as if we too are being brought in. Pakula doesn’t allow us to see how Joe reacts to what he is being shown. Instead, we must sit with our own feelings.

So how does The Parallax View fit into our times? The conspiracy theories in the film are debunked by the government even as more and more people are killed. Yes, there isn’t a cabal of people sharing stories on the internet like there is today, but The Parallax View proffers that we cannot trust our elected leaders to save us. It is a warning, one that has gone unheeded as the decades pass. And here we are, a global pandemic raging out of control, because the people’s trust in the government has eroded so far. God help us.

Photo courtesy of the Criterion Collection

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