America. The land of the free and the home of wild political thrillers. This does not detract from the extensive international political thrillers that exist. But there is something about the United States that seems to make it an ideal setting for suspense built around corruption and conspiracy. Maybe it’s the country’s (misguided) sense of triumph and greatness: when a country is founded on ideals of democracy and freedom, it’s harder to resist a big story about the darkness behind its rule. Either way, the country has a great history of political thrillers, some of which are all-time greats.
As a genre, political thrillers unquestionably reached their zenith in the mid-1970s, thanks to a combination of the JFK assassination, renewed cynicism against the federal government thanks to the Vietnam War, and an honest conspiracy theory in the form of Watergate. Since that peak – which spawned genre classics like “All the President’s Men” and “The Conversation” – the genre has fallen somewhat by the wayside. This is partly due to renewed skepticism and criticisms of real-life conspiratorial thinking; it’s harder to enjoy a story that traffics in conspiracy theories when conspiracy theories are what lead to a government insurrection. However, on-screen conspiracy theories have an undeniable (and lurid) appeal, and as recent films like “Reality” have shown, you can tell a gripping and tense story of American politics simply by portraying events exactly as they happened.
In honor of the 4th of July, IndieWire has curated a list of some of America’s best political thrillers; you know, if you need some counter programming after spending the day thinking about how big/is/was/ugh the USA. To qualify for this list, films must fit within the general thriller genre and focus on American politics or at least involve American political actors; watch a movie like “Argo”, which is mostly set in Iran, but qualifies because it’s an American film revolving around American CIA agents, and the plot is initiated by US-Iran political relations. The films selected for the list range from all-time classics like ‘Blow Out’ and ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, to more recent titles like ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. We’ve also made room for a sci-fi film in the form of ‘Minority Report’, which is set in the year 2054 but is still, unquestionably, American through and through.
Here are the American political thrillers to watch for the 4th of July. Entries are unrated and listed chronologically by US release date. Also, check out our lists of the best 4th of July horror movies and the best election movies.
With editorial contributions from Christian Blauvelt and Chris O’Falt.