Sunday, June 16, 2013

Conspiracy Theory (Warner Bros., Silver, Donner/Shuler-Donner, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was one I’d wanted to see for quite a while: Conspiracy Theory, a 1997 thriller directed by Richard Donner (whose most famous credit is the first of the Superman films with Christopher Reeve, which turned out to be the last movie I saw at the old San Diego Public Library downtown before it recently closed pending the move to the new building near Petco Park — or, as I like to call it, “Greedco Park”) from a script by Brian Helgeland. I’d wanted to see it partly because what I’d heard about it suggested it had an interesting plot — a New York cabdriver who believes in various nutty conspiracy theories and regales his customers with them all day suddenly stumbles on a real one and has to figure out which of his fantasies has suddenly become real and who’s out to eliminate him before he can expose them. The other reason I was interested is the irony that the conspiracy-mongering cabbie, Jerry Fletcher, is played by Mel Gibson — years before we knew he was really as nuts as the guy he’s playing in the film. Unfortunately, Donner and Helgeland weren’t willing to leave it at that; rather than the slow, Hitchcockian buildup I was expecting, they “out” the real conspirator, Dr. Lowry (Patrick Stewart), almost immediately when, after the first 25 minutes of the film have mostly shown Mel Gibson driving his cab around town and stalking the woman he’s obsessed with, assistant U.S. attorney Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), Lowry and his agents kidnap Jerry, strap him to a wheelchair, tape his eyes open so he can’t blink, expose him to strobe lights and start questioning him incomprehensibly. (I was tempted to joke, “I kidnapped you because in your newsletter you said William Shatner was a better Star Trek captain than I am!”)

Eventually it turns out that Dr. Lowry was a CIA agent involved in the MK ULTRA program — which really existed; it was begun in the early 1950’s, officially sanctioned in 1953 and continued for at least 20 years before its existence was finally exposed as part of the Ford-era investigations of the CIA that led to reforms, including a ban on government-ordered assassinations of individuals, that remained more or less intact until they were swept away by the second Bush administration in the wake of 9/11. What we know about MK ULTRA was that it involved mind-control experiments with powerful hallucinogenic drugs, including LSD (would-be mind controllers were really big on LSD at the time), as well as various forms of torture, sensory deprivation, hypnosis, isolation and verbal and sexual abuse. According to the Wikipedia page on it — which when you do an online search is about the only thing that comes up that isn’t from a conspiracy-mongering Web site — “The scope of Project MK ULTRA was broad, with research undertaken at 80 institutions, including 44 colleges and universities, as well as hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies. The CIA operated through these institutions using front organizations, although sometimes top officials at these institutions were aware of the CIA’s involvement.” The Wikipedia page also includes a photo of Scottish psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron, who was living in New York but took regular trips to Canada between 1957 and 1964 to administer LSD and other drugs to MK ULTRA research subjects, and also to give them electroshock therapy at 30 to 40 times normal levels, and Patrick Stewart’s makeup in the film gives him a striking resemblance to Dr. Cameron. As usual for a Hollywood screenwriter, the reality of MK ULTRA wasn’t enough for Brian Helgeland; in his script, the program turns out to be a Manchurian Candidate-style (the reference is actually made in his script!) attempt to create assassins who could be programmed to kill based on a psychological trigger. The gimmick is that Jerry Fletcher was supposed to kill Alice Sutton’s father (why?) but at the last moment couldn’t do it, so the CIA just got rid of him and dumped him in New York City, where he became a cabdriver and the hash they had made of his brain inspired him to become a conspiratologist and rig his apartment with various defenses, including equipping it with firewall so he could incinerate it without burning down the rest of the building; mounting combination locks on his coffeemakers (he has more than one) so no one can poison his coffee; keeping padlocks on just about every entranceway (Charles pointed out that any real conspiratologist would know padlocks are about the least secure sort of entrance lock); and mounting an empty beer bottle on his door after he closes it behind him so it will shatter if anyone tries to force their way in (which, of course, duly happens).

The best part of the film is Mel Gibson’s riveting performance as the brain-fried psycho; he really does seem like the end product of a mind-control experiment gone awry as he visibly struggles to try to get his synapses to fire in anything like a normal, functional order. Julia Roberts does her best with a typically underwritten role — at least in 1997 her acting (if you can call it that) wasn’t as annoyingly mannered as it’s become since (one of the most infuriating things she’s done in more recent movies that she mostly avoids here is that trick of looking in the camera and thinking, “Here I am! Aren’t I beautiful?,” the way Liz Taylor used to). The trivia page reveals that the part was originally offered to Jodie Foster, who actually would have been considerably better, but given that the attempted assassination of President Reagan is a major plot point and the would-be assassin, John Hinckley, was allegedly motivated by his neurotic crush on Foster, maybe the script hit too close to home for her. The film ends up a four-way chase between Fletcher, Alice, Jonas and Lowry (Cylk Cozart), an African-American of unknown loyalties — he originally represents himself as active-duty FBI (as Jonas has as active-duty CIA) but Alice catches him out when he doesn’t know the name of the FBI’s deputy director (who does? I’ll bet a lot of FBI agents out there don’t know the name of their deputy director) and it turns out he’s a member of a CIA goon squad aimed at ferreting out renegades, and Jonas is the principal renegade he’s after, someone who was involved in MK ULTRA and wants to profiteer from it by selling its secrets to a sinister foreign power. Eventually it ends up in a violent confrontation in the hydrotherapy pool of an old mental hospital which was where Fletcher was brainwashed into being a programmed assassin in the first place; Fletcher tries to kill Jonas by holding him under the pool with a mop, Jonas pulls out his gun and fires it at Fletcher (would it still work under water?), Alice shoots Jonas but too late to save Fletcher — at least she thinks, though in a final tag scene it turns out Fletcher is still alive but his new handlers from Lowry’s unit tell him Alice will only be safe if she thinks he’s dead, and Alice is out riding a horse, something she hadn’t done since her dad was killed. (As in Nights in Rodanthe, horses appear at the end as a symbol of regeneration and rehabilitation.)

It’s also got quite a lot of violence-porn, as we expect from a Mel Gibson movie, including scene after scene in which he single-handedly subdues or escapes from the latest goon squad that’s after him despite being horrendously outnumbered (though if Gibson had directed it himself there’d have been even more, and more graphic, violence-porn!), and Helgeland sneaked bits of real conspiratology into his script, from Fletcher’s obsession with purchasing a copy of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye every time he sees one for sale (it’s known in conspiracy annals as the book that supposedly inspired Mark David Chapman to kill John Lennon, and one of the Web sites I ran across while searching for MK ULTRA said that Salinger was himself a CIA operative who sneaked mind-control material into the novel to brainwash its readers!) to more obscure ones like Fletcher’s obsession with the name “Geronimo” (supposedly a reference to the Skull and Bones society at Yale, which claims to have the skull of the real Geronimo at their headquarters) and a sequence in which Fletcher, traced to a bookstore where he’s buying his latest copy of Catcher, flees and hides out in a movie theatre (a reference to Lee Harvey Oswald fleeing the Texas School Book Depository and hiding out in a movie theatre after allegedly shooting President Kennedy). Conspiracy Theory had the makings of a great movie, but as I said to Charles during a break we took in the middle, “Where was St. Alfred when they needed him?” Hitchcock would have kept it well under two hours long instead of letting it run a mind-numbing 135 minutes (about 100-105 minutes would have been the right length for this story), and he and his writers would have kept Jerry Fletcher an ordinary citizen who stumbles onto a real conspiracy instead of an off-the-rails CIA assassin. They would also have been able to figure out a way to make the relationship between him and Alice believable — at the start one gets the impression that he’s sort of a lucky piece for her, someone she regards as a harmless crank even though the rest of her office (including her boss, who’s murdered by Jonas’s goons at the start of the final confrontation — don’t ask) thinks he’s dangerous and can’t fathom why she agrees to see him — whereas as it stands Conspiracy Theory gradually removes itself so far from normal reality that one can imagine a particularly demented conspiratologist deciding that the great They had this movie made just to make conspiracy theorists look ridiculous.

Conspiracy Theory is also badly dated, since it’s not only pre-9/11 (the World Trade Center towers appear as part of the New York cityscape at a time when that meant absolutely nothing, though to a modern viewer that can’t help but bring to mind all the conspiracy theories that have swirled around 9/11!) but also pre-Internet. Jerry Fletcher is shown producing a newsletter called “Conspiracy Theory” and mailing it to his subscribers — all five of them (four of whom are killed in one night and the fifth is Jonas, subscribing under a phony name to keep track of his former patsy) — when of course in the modern age he’d be running a blog. Rather than boring his fares with his conspiracy tales (though he might do that, too!), a modern-day Jerry Fletcher would spend his spare time sitting in his room, connecting with the millions (or at least tens of thousands) of like-minded people online and obsessing not only about the physical safety of his living space but also the efficacy of the electronic jamming devices he’d put on his computer to try to keep his communications from being read by THEM. After the revelations that the NSA has been routinely spying on every American, monitoring their cell-phone conversations and keeping track of their e-mails — and the polls indicating that most Americans are just fine with that, thank you (though last Friday’s episode of Washington Week noted that polls taken during the Bush administration said 60-plus percent of Republicans approved of the government spying program versus only 30-plus percent of Democrats, and now the partisan breakdown is the other way around — suggesting that the American public is split three ways: one-third think the government spying is O.K. no matter which party is in power, one-third are against it no matter which party is in power, and one-third think their guys can be trusted with this knowledge base while the other guys can’t) — Conspiracy Theory plays quite differently than it no doubt did when it was new. But, alas, that still doesn’t make it a great movie — or even an indifferent but eerily premonitory movie like the John Travolta vehicle Swordfish, which had the misfortune to come out just before 9/11 rewrote the rules on what would and what wouldn’t be considered an acceptable depiction of terrorism in the U.S. corporate media.